Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the second motion that appeared before the board, which was approved.
During a special Duncan Board of Education meeting Tuesday, the board voted unanimously to implement a district wide mask policy for all students, staff and visitors.
The special meeting hosted by the Board of Education to discuss final preparations for the 2020-2021 school year featured staff from Duncan Regional Hospital, who presented to the board.
Duncan Regional’s CEO and President Jay Johnson introduced the presentation to the board and said he knows it is not an easy topic to talk about but felt it was necessary to discuss with DPS Administration and the community.
Johnson said the topic of masks remains highly contested but he hopes the conversation will take the politics out of it and get people instead behind public health suggestions.
“I also think it is easier for us to talk about this because it is what we do everyday and we have been doing this everyday for about four to five months,” Johnson said. “We have processed this information daily and have gotten used to wearing masks before other people were getting used to wearing masks.”
Johnson said he loves the community and the people who live in it, which is why he recommended masks for the district.
“That is what everyone in this community wants from their hospital, their doctors, and they want to know the things that we recommend that are based on science and based on things that are learned, studied and appropriate,” Johnson said. “That is the model we are following and that is to take the politics out of mask wearing. It is a really important message and embracing public health again.”
Johnson then introduced two of his doctors, Dr. Jim McGouran and Dr. Michael Hemphill, who help lead DRH’s response efforts and task force during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. McGouran said the uncertainty of COVID-19 keeps doctors on their toes and learning more about the virus on a daily basis.
“Here we are months later and we know a little more about it and it can be very serious to some people and it can still kill you and we are still trying to cure it,” McGouran said. “We are not testing a lot of kids yet but I have a pending test on a four year old … Kids can get it too unfortunately, but the good thing about when kids get it is they easily recover and are not usually as sick and they usually don’t transfer it as easy as to others in parents and grandparents. We don’t know 100% why because maybe their bodies are fighting it so hard the virus just doesn’t stay but we don’t really know because we haven’t had enough kids that have been super sick.”
Regardless, Dr. McGouran said this virus doesn’t care and is not picky and will go into any host it can.
Dr. Hemphill then spoke about the patients at DRH and in the ICU on ventilators. Ultimately, Hemphill said masks will help and recommends them for all students.
“The more that is between you and another person, the less likely you are to get whatever the other person has,” Hemphill said. “Basically the evidence for masks have come out in the past two months and most of the robust evidence even in the past month … There has been a lot about harm with masks … There is simply no evidence for that. We know that oxygen molecules and carbon dioxide molecules are smaller than the holes in the mask, especially the masks we are asking the community to wear.”
Board member Dr. Demetra Cox asked the doctors about exemptions for mask wearing and Dr. Hemphill said there is no medical reason to have an exemption.
“We would certainly recommend that all persons inside would be required to wear a mask and if they can’t socially distance, they will also be required to wear a mask,” Hemphill said. “I have looked into this extensively — so these are my patients, patients with asthma, COPD, with pre-existing conditions — and the answer is so far no. The only situation would be a severe COPD patient with an N95 mask, that is the only time we have been able to demonstrate any problems.”
With the presentation complete, board member Christopher Schreckengost made a motion to require all students from Pre-K through 12th grade with no exemptions to wear masks.
Superintendent Dr. Tom Deighan then weighed in on the conversation before the motion went to vote and specified that he would feel more comfortable with mandating masks if parents and students could be allowed to receive physician approval with a doctor’s note to not wear a mask.
After a lengthy debate, the board finally voted on a measure to require masks for all Pre-K through 12th grade students in high-risk areas, with the caveat that parents can receive exemptions for their children if they have a doctor's note per Deighan's request.
There are exceptions to the rules voted on as masks can be removed while inside the classrooms if classroom “cohorts” remain grouped together as well as when eating meals, during nap time, recess and physical education if social distancing is possible.
Deighan, after the board meeting, spoke about the board’s decision and said the district will abide by the ruling of the board and require masks.
“Duncan Public Schools staff and students are going to wear masks. It is very simple and based on our local physicians and our local medical experts, it is our best chance to having a good school year,” Deighan said. “I hope people understand that masks can be a nuisance, but it is a lot less of a nuisance then canceling schools again and that is our goal to have a normal school year.”
While virtual learning was previously an option as the application deadline closed on Aug. 3rd, Deighan said following the ruling, there’s still time for parents to reach out to the district to enroll their kids into virtual if that is their choice.
“Any parents who request virtual will still be considered and they can still contact the school district,” Deighan said. “The board sets policy, and then the principals, administrators and teachers, we implement it, so there will be a lot of decisions and adjustments as we move forward.”
Currently, the school year is beginning Aug. 13. The next Duncan Board of Education meeting will take place at 6 p.m. Aug. 11 at the Duncan Public Schools Administration building.