Amid frequent eruptions from an angry and unruly crowd, members of the Williamson County Board of Education voted 7-3 Tuesday night to mandate the wearing of masks in all elementary schools in the Williamson County Schools district.
It’s a vote that came after a number of amendments, lengthy discussions among board members, and countless interruptions from parents who were against a mask mandate. They had filled not only the auditorium of the Williamson County Administrative Complex but were also amassed outside in the parking lots.
The rise of the COVID-19 Delta variant has caused educational institutions across the country to reevaluate mask policies for students, particularly those who are under 12 and are currently unable to be vaccinated. For example, Metro Nashville schools will have mask mandates for all levels in place for now.
At the moment, Williamson does not have a policy for its middle and high schools, but the elementary level now has a masking requirement in place through Sept. 21, thanks to the vote by the board.
“We are not going to solve COVID,” WCS Superintendent Jason Golden said as he introduced the recommendation before the board. “What we can do is mitigate it.
“This is a judgment call. There is no clear answer. The reason you’ve received upwards of a thousand emails and hearing from folks on all imaginable sides of this issue is because there is no clear answer. What we are recommending is the best judgment we have based on all the analysis we have.”
After being tweaked through the night with a number of amendments, the resolution will require masks for students, staff and visitors at the elementary grade level inside all buildings and buses effective Thursday and to end Tuesday, Sept. 21, at 11:59 p.m. Teachers who are safely distanced at least 6 feet may remove their masks. The district will grandfather exemptions from the 2020-21 school year and allow staff and students to exempt with the same set of exemptions religion and health.”
Voting for the resolution were Eliot Mitchell (District 3), Brad Fiscus (District 4), Jennifer Aprea (District 5), Sheila Cleveland (District 7), Ricky Wimberly (District 9), K.C. Haugh (District 11) and Nancy Garrett (District 12). Dan Cash (District 2), Jay Galbreath (District) and Candy Emerson (District 8) voted against. Angela Durham (District 1) and Eric Welch (District 10) were absent.
The night was filled with tension as many in the crowd kept interrupting the procedures and ridiculing speakers and some board members, leading board chair Garrett to pound her gavel throughout the meeting.
“I hate wearing masks, and I also hate conflict,” Aprea, the newest member on the board, said as she explained why she would vote to approve. “It makes me really sad to see where we are as a community right now, to see the tension and the anger and the frustration. We’re all frustrated, we’re all sad.
“We all want to do what’s best for our kids. That’s the bottom line. … I hate that it’s become politicalized because the health and safety of our students is not a political issue. A virus doesn’t affect people based on who they voted for or what party they affiliate with. None of that matters. This is all about the safety of our kids.”
Galbreath, Emerson and Cash were particularly vocal on why they planned to vote no on the recommendation. Their comments elicited several rounds of applause from the crowd that mostly consisted of those against the mandate.
“I think mandating this is just sinful,” Emerson said. … “I have over 20 years of experience as a master-degreed teacher, and the things that are going on here are making me absolutely crazy. We’ve lost all sensibility.”
Like all WCS school board meetings — both the regularly scheduled monthly meetings and the special-called ones as Tuesday’s, for instance — time was made for public input. Thirty speakers took to the podium to voice their concern or support, 15 on each side of the issue.
Chelsea Medley, a nurse practitioner who has a son too young to be vaccinated, asked that the board reinstate the mask mandate and other mitigation strategies used last year.
“Right now COVID cases are rising in our county and state,” she said. “I felt very comfortable last year with all the measures that were taken to keep our kids safe. … The Delta variant spreads much easier than previous variants, and we are seeing more and more kids with severe cases. … As long as we have a large, vulnerable population who can’t access the vaccine, we must wear a mask to protect them and keep them in school.”
Clay Travis, a sports radio personality, closed out the public input portion of the meeting in a rather dramatic fashion, bringing the crowd to a rousing ovation with his plea.
“You all should be ashamed,” he sternly said to board members. “We teach our kids that facts matter. The facts are these — masks don’t work! There isn’t a single scientific data that has ever proven that masks work."
The Centers for Disease Control has recommended universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.
“I feel bad for all these people walking around in masks engaging in cosmetic theater, thinking they are making a difference against COVID, and they’re not," Travis said. "Here’s the truth: Our kids are one in a million that they’re going to die of COVID. They are more likely to be struck by lightning or die of the seasonal flu."
Travis did not provide where his statistics came from. The CDC says that COVID-19 appears to spread more easily than the flu and has the potential to infect and cause more severe illness. The Delta variant has been particularly concerning because it spreads more rapidly than earlier variants, the CDC says. The CDC has also said masks work best when everyone is wearing them, particularly people who are not vaccinated against COVID-19.
“I would tell every parent here, don’t let your kid wear a mask," Travis said.
There was even more input from the audience that filled up the 222-capacity auditorium of the Williamson County Administrative Complex, much of it in the form of catcalls, heckling or loud applause. Hundreds more people shouted and held up signs outside the building, where there were near-physical confrontations that led to law enforcement officials intervening.
Click here to see the full meeting. The school board meets again Thursday for its August work session.