Polk schools mask decision

Published 4:38 pm Friday, November 12, 2021

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School board decides to go optional after 2 weeks of less than 5 percent positive

POLK COUNTY—Polk County School parents will be able to decide if their child wears a mask to school if the county’s percent positive rate for COVID-19 remains under 5 percent for 2 consecutive weeks. 

The Polk County School Board met Monday and made the decision by a 4-3 vote. Board members Judy Jackson, Sherry Page, Danielle Gibbs and Rick Covil voted for the motion and board members Michael Ashworth, Cindy Allen and Sara Bell voted against the motion. 

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Bell had previously motioned to leave the current mask requirement in place in hopes that the current lower numbers continue but that motion failed by a 3-4 vote. 

Jackson motioned to make masks optional, but her motion was amended with the final motion of going optional if the county’s percent positive rate stays below 5 percent for 2 consecutive weeks. 

Polk County Schools Superintendent Aaron Greene presented numbers and his recommendation that the school system remain with the temporary mask mandate with weekly updates. He said health experts recommend there be several weeks of sustained decline before changing requirements. 

Greene said there is concern over holiday gatherings and possible spikes after those breaks. 

Jackson asked why the vaccinations are being done at the school and not the health department, which is located next door. She said it seems like the school is pushing the vaccines. 

Greene said the health department is located in Columbus. The building next to the middle school is the department of social services. He said when the health department reached out to the school system, they agreed to let them use the facility. He mentioned that it may be more comfortable for students and parents to be at the middle school for the vaccine, which is totally voluntary and parents must be present for consent. 

“We’ve been doing this stuff for years,” Greene said. “We felt like it was what we needed to do in that particular situation.” 

Jackson said when the school system first went to a mask mandate the county was at 8 percent positive and now it’s in the 5.4 percent range. She said the county is in that decline area and have been there for several weeks. 

Bell said another way to look at it is the masks are working. 

“Another way to look at it is what we are doing is working and keeping our schools open,” Bell said. 

Greene said with masks students and staff do not have as strict of quarantine requirements as with optional masks. 

Board chair Ashworth said he does not want the school system to go backwards. 

“I’d love to see us get to a point where we are just kind of done with it,” Ashworth said. 

He mentioned that with optional masks, Polk schools had over 600 students and staff in quarantine in the first 2 weeks and 2 schools had to shut down. 

“I feel like in order to keep the kids in school we have to keep this in place for the time being,” Ashworth said. 

The school board heard from 14 residents during public comments, which the board decided to hear before making its decision. The board heard comments from both sides regarding mask requirements at school.