Students and staff required to mask up again regardless of vaccination status

Katelyn Waltemyer
Jackson Newspapers
Steve Chancey was the only board member to wear a face covering at Thursday's meeting.

RIPLEY — In an effort to remain in-person, the Jackson County School Board voted to re-enact its mask mandate for grades K-12 while indoors and on school buses indefinitely Thursday. The policy will go into effect Tuesday, Sept. 7.

The policy also applies to all staff and school visitors, regardless of vaccination status. Student-athletes who are competing indoors will not be required to wear masks while playing.

The decision comes after a high volume of student quarantines. Blaine Hess, Jackson County Schools’ superintendent, said Thursday 523 students had been quarantined since school began Aug. 18. During the 2020-21 school year, the final total of students who quarantined was 2,529, Hess said. 

When discussing the mask mandate, several board members said masks aren’t their first option — citing that they may be uncomfortable at times — but they are the best way to keep students in schools.

Jackson County School Board member Bea Isner was concerned that if masks aren't enforced, in-person learning would soon shut down. 

"I know masks are uncomfortable for children, I know that," Isner said. "But, I also know that social isolation when we're in remote learning, when we're not in school, is impacting our kids' mental health." 

Prior to making the decision, members of the community spoke about their concerns.

Adena Barnette, a Ripley High School teacher, said more than 40 of her 150 students are quarantining. There are faces missing from her classroom and a wave of emails in her inbox. Students in quarantine are asking questions about assignments. 

As she stood before the board, her voice shook as she asked the board to do something to lower the number of quarantines. 

"The numbers don't lie," Barnette said. "Something's got to give." 

When asked what it's been like to have so many students in quarantine only 12 days into the school year, Barnette's eyes turned red. 

"It breaks my heart because we had so much hope for this year that maybe we were going to get back to a sense of normalcy," She said. "It's not the case."

She said it's hard for her to teach when she's missing eight to 10 students per class. 

But there was some opposition. 

Jackson County Schools parent Misty Snyder condemned the board for even having the mask mandate reconsideration on the agenda. 

"How dare you take my right to decide what's best for my child away," Snyder proclaimed. 

Board member Steve Chancey seconded board president Jim Frazier's motion for the mask requirement. He was discussing how he had been to a packed school gym recently and there wasn't a mask in sight. 

"This [mask] recommendation, it's just not getting the job done," Chancey said. "We've had one of our school secretaries die from COVID, and I would hate to think some child in the Jackson County School system died when I could have done something about it."

Snyder tried to speak while Chancey was addressing the board. Frazier said the public forum was closed and they weren't taking public comment at that time. 

The schools will provide masks for those who come to school or get on the buses without one. Frazier said the board may revisit the mask policy once the county gets out of the red COVID case count. 

— Katelyn Waltemyer (she/her) is the General Assignment and Enterprise Reporter for Jackson Newspapers in Jackson County, West Virginia. Have a news tip on local government or education? Or a good feature? You can reach Katelyn at kwaltemyer@jacksonnewspapers.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kate_Waltemyer.