Face masks were again at the forefront of discussion Thursday by members of the Loudon County Board of Education.

The lone public speaker during the monthly workshop was Greenback School teacher Teri Wills, who shared the contents of a letter she wrote about masks in December to Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw.

She wanted the BOE to give teachers authority to decide if masks were required in their class.

“I can demand that student take off their hat, take off their hoodie,” Wills said. “I can tell students to take a ring out of their nose. I can refuse to teach a student who has a rip in their jeans above the knee, or a shirt or a skirt that’s too short, or a piece of clothing that has an offensive logo. None of these situations threaten my life. But I cannot tell a student to wear a face mask or a covering during my class. My heart is heavy because I teach a subject that is required for high school graduation. If students don’t have to wear a mask and I decide not to return to teaching in January, it would be difficult to find a qualified replacement math teacher. I would feel that I had let my student and my community down.

“I weigh this burden against this disservice to my children and my grandchildren,” she added. “Should I continue to teach and catch COVID or worse?”

Board members decided to not put face masks on the regular meeting agenda for this week, a decision Wills found disappointing.

“I am not a politically astute person and feel that I have been given the runaround since July 2020, when I first learned that students were not required to wear masks,” Wills said in an email correspondence. “First, I was told that it’s a legal issue. Then when other schools ‘defied the law’ and required masks, I was told that it was up to the county mayor who had decided to make it optional. I hoped that if things got worse, the mayor would reverse his decision. When things got worse and he didn’t, I wrote to him on Dec. 9. His reply was very encouraging and I waited for something to change. Nothing happened, nothing changed.”

In a 5-4 vote in July, the board rejected requiring all students and teachers to wear face coverings.

“The numbers have gone down here. The vaccine’s out,” Bobby Johnson Jr., board member, said. “I wish the teachers would be able to get the vaccine sooner, but I’m not sure why it’s come up again, especially it’s like (Loudon High School principal) Scott MacKintosh said, we’re allowing them to go to games and everything. My biggest thing, too, is the mayors, none of them require it, the governor hasn’t required it, the president hasn’t required it. The president’s required it in certain areas, but if they come in with a mandate then we’d follow right to the T.”

Johnson favored moving forward the way the school system has operated through most of the year.

“I think Mike (Garren, county director of schools) and all of them has put together a pretty good plan and it’s worked pretty good and we’re already three-quarters of the way done,” Johnson said. “From the people I’ve talked to in my district, they don’t want to change anything. Talking to some of the teachers I’ve talked to, they’re good with staying the course.”

Board members discussed the possibility of some parents taking students out of classrooms if masks were required.

Kenneth Presley, board member, emphasized the decision to not seek a vote was difficult. He said there was no right or wrong, and pointed to the extra cleaning happening in county schools.

“We’re doing so good with the cleaning of the rooms, the way we’re tracing everybody,” Scott Newman, board member, said. “If we look at the other counties around us, we’re just so much more successful. But on the other side of it, we don’t take that lightly. That’s why we wanted to have a discussion about the options. I just don’t think that the board would support changing. Not that I was 100% changing, but tomorrow we may have to come back and revisit it. I think right now we stay the course. We’ve been successful so I don’t think we should change.”

Mike Garren, county director of schools, said since the start of the school year there have been 233 positive cases of COVID-19 in county school classrooms.

Surrounding counties have gone virtual at some point during the year, he said.

“We can celebrate the fact that we have not closed the schools, we can celebrate the fact that we have few reported cases, but it is still being transmitted,” Wills said. “I will give one anecdote. The first week we came back from school in January I had a student that attended for three days. He was in my classroom hour, we got a call from the office, his mother had called. She was coming to pick him up to get him tested because she had tested positive. As he was leaving I said, ‘Well, I hope it’s negative,’ and he said, ‘I’m sure it’s positive.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I’ve had symptoms for two days now.’ He passed the temperature check. He came to school for three days. He went home, he tested and he tested positive.”

Johnson believes face coverings could be considered again if COVID-19 is still an issue at the beginning of next school year.

“I think we should at least look at it and see what the whole country’s doing overall,” Presley said. “Is it getting better? If it’s getting worse then, yeah, we need to evaluate it again.”

BOE to consider bonus

Garren will ask the board to approve a 0.75% bonus for employees.

State legislators in January met in special session to address a one-time bonus for teachers impacted during the pandemic.

“The state is providing $182,500 for only teachers, and it will take $186,100 for teachers and an additional $36,300 for classified employees,” Garren said in an email correspondence. “The district will need to cover the additional $39,900 from fund balance. This will be a bonus for the second half of the current school year 2020-21 as the state has very tight stipulations around the use of these funds.”

Board members favored the bonus.

“It’s still a good thing. I’m all for it,” Philip Moffett, board member, said. “Appreciate all the help we can get. Sometimes you get a nickel and it costs you 7 or 8 cents, but it’s still a nickel that you didn’t have.”

Broadcasting meetings

Board members decided to forgo consideration of potentially broadcasting workshop and committee meetings.

After speaking with Channel 3 representatives, Garren said it would cost $50 per meeting to stream to YouTube and $100 per meeting to stream to YouTube and put on television. Voting meetings are already recorded.

“I respect the board’s decision to not expend additional funds on recording meetings that encompass non-voting matters,” Garren said.