Wearing face masks will be optional for Siloam Springs School District students when they return to school Monday.
School board members voted unanimously during a special meeting Thursday to rescind the district's face mask policy, which was originally adopted in July. All other covid-19 protocols will remain in place, including limiting visitors to school buildings, social distancing, hand washing and sanitizing of frequently touched surfaces, according to Superintendent Jody Wiggins.
School board members voted 3-2 on April 8 to keep the district's mask policy in place for the rest of the year. At the time, Wiggins recommended keeping the policy and board members Brian Lamb, Audra Farrell and Connie Matchell were in favor of the measure, while Travis Jackson and Grant Loyd voted against it.
On Thursday, Wiggins presented school board members with a list of reasons for reversing the policy as well as several considerations. Since the board meeting on April 8, there have been several changes in state and federal guidelines, as well as state law, he said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson allowed the state-wide face mask mandate to expire on March 31, Wiggins said. Then on April 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed guidance for mask wearing, especially for those who are fully vaccinated, he said. The Arkansas Department of Health also has relaxed quarantine guidelines for those who are fully vaccinated, he said.
More than 50 percent of school employees have been vaccinated and students over the age of 16 have also had the opportunity to be vaccinated, Wiggins said.
Hutchinson's signature of Act 1002 on Thursday also played a part in the decision, Wiggins said. The new law prohibits any state agency, entity or political subdivision, including schools, from requiring the wearing of face coverings. It goes into effect on July 1, he said.
There are very few places in the community outside of school where face masks are still required, Wiggins said. Additionally, the district has only had around three positive covid-19 cases since spring break, said Assistant Superintendent Shane Patrick.
Wiggins told school board members they should also consider that removing the face mask requirement will mean that based on current quarantine guidance from the ADH, the district will revert to quarantining any person who has been within six feet of a covid-positive person for 15 minutes, which could affect a large number of students if the school begins to have positive cases again. He also reminded board members that covid has not gone away.
"The threat is still out there, I don't think the threat is nearly as prevalent as it has been at other times during the school year and I think at this time, I would like to recommend we rescind the face mask policy and go masks optional the remaining four weeks of school," Wiggins said.
Matchell asked whether school districts that have done away mask policies have experienced any surges. Wiggins said he has not heard anything from the Gentry and Farmington School Districts, and to his knowledge the Pea Ridge School District has not had a resurgence.
Lamb asked if school staff members will still be paid for quarantine leave. Wiggins said the leave policy is still in effect through the end of the year, but it will probably not be available next year.
Jackson thanked Wiggins and the administrative team for considering the new information.
"I would hope however this vote goes, that hopefully people on both sides will be respectful and caring for the choices that are made, for the people who still wish to wear masks and those who don't," he said.
Loyd asked how the change will affect graduation, scheduled for Sunday, May 16. Masks will be optional for the event but all other safety measures will remain in place, Wiggins said.
Matchell said the new state law prohibiting schools from requiring face masks makes the local decision almost unnecessary. She asked administrators to make sure that teachers are careful how they handle the culture during the change, noting that even a positive comment such as "It's so good to see your faces," could make someone who wants to wear a mask feel bad.
Loyd also asked that staff members pay attention and make sure students whose parents want them to wear a mask are not made fun of.
Faculty and staff members will be asked to respect student choices and each other's choices, Wiggins said.
"We will do our best to make sure there is no negative influence in either direction," he said.
"I would like to thank you all," Wiggins told board members. "This whole situation has put you all in a tough spot. I know you have gotten lots of feedback, pro and con, from both sides. ... I don't have any problem with the way we have handled this as a school district. I don't have a problem with our last vote being split and having a difference of opinion. I am respectful of people who have a different opinion than I do, and I kind of expect them to be respectful of my opinion as well, and I think this board has exhibited those same expectations for one another and for our community, and I appreciate you all."