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School board addresses masks, contact tracing

The WC School Board gathered at Bobby Ray Monday night.

Recommended, not required - It’s a major distinction the Warren County School Board made about its mask policy Monday night.

In an effort to update its 2021-22 Operating Plan, one that was put in place in the July board meeting, the WC School Board made a motion to change the wording of its mask policy if the school moves into the Red Area (over 25 percent positivity in community testing) at any point this year. The original wording had a mask requirement in the red level, but Monday’s motion, which passed 4-2, changed the requirement to a recommendation.

Voting for the change were board members Tonya Bess (who made the original motion), Sue Anderson, Tommy Culwell and Helen Martin. Bill Zechman and James Bennett opposed the motion.

Contact tracing quarantines, which has nearly 900 students home this week, were also a major part of the agenda. A new policy for handling of contact tracing, which would allow symptom-free students to attend school if they wear masks, was passed 6-0.

Director of Schools Grant Swallows took time to lay out the landscape of what had changed since the original Operation Plan was adopted in July. Mainly, a wave of new COVID cases had risen local numbers faster than many had thought.

“In July, when we passed the plan, obviously I don’t think anybody could see what was coming in the next four weeks in our community with our COVID situation. As we’ve gotten back into school, I think we’ve seen we’ve been affected probably more than what we had anticipated,” said Swallows. “We spent the summer preparing and hoping for a school year not effected by COVID – it’s what we all want and what we’re all hoping for – but we’ve seen COVID rear its ugly head.”

Because of the quick rise in numbers, the community was put on alert late on Friday, Aug. 13 that the Red Area had been reached and a mask requirement could soon be implemented. On that afternoon, the local positivity rate (of community testing) was 26.2 percent – over the predetermined level of 25 percent.

In the phone call made to parents that Friday afternoon, Swallows said it was mentioned that there would be a wait until Monday, Aug. 16 to see if the numbers went down – and they did (local levels were at 18 percent, per Swallows, at the time of Monday's Meeting).

But by the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 16, any mask requirements passed by boards were effectively squashed by Governor Bill Lee’s executive order. Lee’s order gave parents the option to opt-out of any mask mandate, which never actually was put in place in Warren County because it didn’t reach the Red Area.

But with Lee’s new executive order in place – and a rise in cases locally – Swallows felt the need to address the school system’s operation policy. So did many of the board members.

“I cannot ask anymore from our teachers. I can’t ask them to police students who want to opt out. And for the parents who want their children to mask up, I thank you for that and we want your kids to mask up,” said Bess before making the motion to change the mask wording in the Red Area to ‘recommended.’

Martin sided with Bess, though she wanted to be sure to stress that she believes in masks. In the end, she didn’t want to further burden the teachers or step into a role of telling parents what to do.

“I do believe in wearing a mask and I do believe in vaccinations. I can’t tell the parents what to do with their children or make them wear the mask,” said Martin, who referenced how kids could still take masks off when they get to school even if their parents wanted them to wear masks. “I don’t want to put anymore responsibility on our teachers to police it. They have enough responsibility to educate our children and to get them back up to speed.

“I would like to say mandate – and I know we can’t please everybody – but I want to say that we recommend your children wear a mask and, please, I hope (they do) for the community’s sake.”

Zechman delivered some of the sharpest objections to taking away mask requirements at the Red Area – a level he, personally, felt was set too high at 25 percent. In a long statement during the discussion, Zechman stated his strong support of the original plan for a mask mandate.

“I do support an original mask mandate, according to the original plan adopted in July. The idea that we can just opt to expose other people’s children to the coronavirus is not only absurd and ridiculous, it’s morally repugnant,” said Zechman.

Culwell worried what is going on – with the virus, masks and the politicization of the topic – is getting the schools sidetracked from what they are supposed to do.

“I feel like it’s a disservice to our students. This is not what education is supposed to be like. Instead of teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, I’m afraid we’re teaching fear, hatred and division,” said Culwell.

Near the end of the discussion, Bennett pointed out the biggest fear in the room.

“The last thing I know this board wants to see is to lose one child or one employee to death. The main thing is I want every child to be safe, for every teacher to be safe, for every employee to be safe. That’s why I’m suggesting we stay in the same policy we have,” said Bennett, who also cited how two levels already only have mask recommendations and a third – due to Governor Lee’s order – would allow an opt-out of the mask mandate for students.

A round of applause came from the room after four ‘Yes’ votes came in to change the wording to recommended instead of required.

The discussion about contact tracing – and how it would be handled – went much quicker. Everybody seemed to be in agreement if kids could be in class, they should be. Swallows led the way, including passing along an inspiring sight from a recent school visit.

“I was very proud to walk around the high school on Friday and a lot of students have chosen to wear their masks to avoid going home. Guess what? They want to be in school and we should celebrate that from the rooftops,” said Swallows. “I think if you talk to students, they don’t necessarily want to wear the masks, but if they can stay in school, they’ll do it.”

The motion was put forth where students, if they come in close contact with a positive case, can return to school if they wear a mask for 14 days and do not show any symptoms. There could also be some avenues for taking the mask off earlier if a student receives a negative test, but those issues were not set in stone at the meeting. Any opt-out of wearing the mask would be choosing to quarantine away from school.

Before the vote though, it seems like everybody wanted to find a way to keep kids in class if possible.

Sue Anderson said, “I personally think this is a good way to go.”

“We don’t have the answers, but we’re trying to get you the best solutions at this point,” added Bess while addressing the room of parents.

Culwell summed it up succinctly, “we have to give a little to get a little.”

The motion passed 6-0. Swallows noted after the passing of the motion that it could take a day to iron out the policy and a phone call would be sent out soon.

Watch the entire school board meeting from Monday on the WCS-TV YouTube page!


The following are points WCSA editor-in-chief Jeff Simmons took from Monday’s meeting - the first school board meeting he has attended since becoming a sports reporter in Warren County. These are only his OPINIONS:

Quick takeaways

I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the meeting Monday, but I was hoping the main topic of discussion – masking and contact tracing – would be first on the agenda. I should’ve known better. When you have everybody’s attention, you have to make them wait.

I passed the time by going on Twitter and doing the first play-by-play of the 2021-22 season. You can see a snippet or two here:

One thing I need to find out more about is how to get to the podium in school board meetings. Tonya Bess said that information is available, so I’ll probably reach out. I don’t want to be in front of the room unless they ask me (I can’t think of a scenario where that happens), but I would’ve liked to have seen a few more of the questions coming from the crowd addressed.

Mostly, I was happy with the decisions the board made. There really was no way to require masking when Governor Bill Lee had already provided an opt-out clause and contact tracing – which has 895 kids out of school – needed to be addressed. I’m interested to see how much that number shrinks in the next 36 hours – just from the Warren County Sports Authority perspective, it may need to go down by a dozen if people want to be at Nunley Stadium Friday.

Here are a few more things that stood out to me:

Swallows taking command

It doesn’t surprise me that Director of Schools Grant Swallows was a standout quarterback in high school and college. He seems like he could command a huddle and rally people. I think he did so Monday night.

I had a chance to speak to him some Friday and he made it clear there needed to be more answers – and a clearer picture – developed for the community. He continued with that same theme Monday, addressing how he accepts the blame for the confusion that seemed to envelop McMinnville last week.

“Frankly folks, we need some calm and some concentration on working on what is best for our kids. We haven’t had that in the last week and a half and, ultimately, that’s my fault. I take that - I have broad shoulders and I can take that,” said Swallows.

I guess his shoulders can do more than throw touchdowns. Thank goodness, somebody needed to step up and lead the charge.

Thinking of the kids

My favorite line from any coach, educator, etc. at the high school in my decade-plus of doing this job came from Jimmy Walker. When he was principal (on his way out actually), there was a difficult decision to be made and there was a group trying to figure it out.

They had thought of every angle – or at least they thought. Walker stepped in and, instead of adding another opinion of an adult, he simply asked, “Well, did you ask the kids?” Boom, mic drop.

It hit home when Tommy Culwell discussed how his son has been in and out of the classroom for contact tracing for nearly a year.

“I’m tired. The last 18 months have been brutal as a parent. As of Friday, my 10-year-old got quarantined for the sixth time in the last 10 months – that’s not benefitting anybody,” said Culwell.

Culwell and Swallows both have kids in the school system and they are both dealing with quarantines of their own kids, per what they said at the meeting. I’m not saying other members of the board weren’t thinking of the kids too – they were – but there was a distinct sound in Culwell’s voice and a look in his eyes when he made very quick, solid points.

It was obvious he had asked his kids how it felt to be a student (and athlete) right now.

Segregating schools in 2021 – No chance

If there was one phrase I heard all night that made me do a double take, it was when Bill Zechman asked Grant Swallows (pending opt-outs on mask requirements), “How practical or impractical would it be to segregate the students, those who have opted out, segregate them from those who are wearing a mask?” Zechman added, “Separate rooms, separate teachers.”

My goodness, even if there was a method behind that madness (I’m not sure there was though), I don’t think I’d ever use “segregate” in reference to anything school related in 2021. Before anybody could even answer that question, a person in the crowd loudly shouted, “discrimination.”

Swallows shot down the idea quickly. It wasn't the last of Zechman's many words.

Zechman shows off vocabulary, delivers long sermon

Let me say this: I’ve known Bill Zechman for 20-plus years. He was a fixture at the radio station I worked at for three years while I was in high school and he’s married to my old boss. His turn-of-phrase is something I’m aware of and it’s very awesome when he writes you a letter of praise (even if I sometimes needed a dictionary to understand if he was complimenting me).

I have a great appreciation for his lexicon – he may have even taught me that word. I got to hear a lot of it Monday night. This story is already going to be pushing 3,000 words, so I can’t put them all, but here was one time he really got on a roll:

“… The very idea that we’d send our children, knowingly, and the children of everybody in this room, and all Warren County school patrons into a shooting gallery where their very life could be harmed, that idea is repugnant to me. I think my first duty is to protect the safety and health of our students. The second, very close to it, is to provide a free, appropriate public education.

If we have a rampant spread of the coronavirus because we didn’t practice basic, common-sense personal safety, we’d be shutting down the school system.

What Gov. Lee says really doesn’t make any difference. He wants to have it both ways – he wants to be a champion of safety by saying ‘we recommend masks,’ but he wants everybody to have the option to get out of the masks. That’s purely political.

I could say I feel sorry for the Governor, but he asked for the job. He put himself in that position of making, what I think is, an absurdly contradictory statement. That’s where he is.

We could say, ‘we highly recommend it,’ or ‘we highly, highly recommend it,’ or ‘we highly, highly, highly recommend it,’ but if parents are free to say, ‘we don’t care what you recommend,’ then what good is it?

We can talk about personal rights all we want to – that’s great, I love personal rights and I love my rights. But my rights are not absolute. If I exercise my rights and do whatever in the world I want to do, I’m affecting other people and I’m affecting other children in our schools. If those children are infected and asymptomatic, they could take it home to their momma and daddy, their grandma and grandpa, their older siblings, and all we’re doing is stoking the fire of the COVID pandemic in our community. If we want to get to the other side, we have to practice the safety measures will know work.”

I think that is what kids refer to as, “shots fired.” Zechman didn’t hold back on his feelings for Gov. Lee. He didn’t hold back on practically anything. I probably would have held back on saying “shooting gallery,” to illustrate COVID’s looming presence and danger in the school. Again, it’s just tone deaf in 2021, especially for somebody who has so many good words to make his point.

Later, Zechman had his funniest line of the night, saying, “Let me say one thing very quickly,” to grab the attention of the board in a discussion portion. By my review of the YouTube tape, he went on for the next five minutes and 18 seconds.

It was a long dive into the rich man, Lazarus and Dives – discussed in Luke 16:19-31. It’s about 300 words – you won’t need five minutes to read it. Zechman surmised one point with, “sometimes facts make no difference. Our opinions rule the day.”

I know whose opinion I heard plenty of Monday night.

Thanks, Doc!

Dr. Bryan Chastain was brought to the front podium to take a series of questions from the board during Monday's meeting. His questions didn’t end there though – a person in the crowd also wanted to get his opinion on masks.

It was hard to hear the question in the room and even harder to hear it on filming. Dr. Chastain, who had roamed out to better hear the question, was asked to come back to the podium and also was asked if he wanted to take off his mask so people could hear him better.

Chastain’s one-word response, “No,” drew a round of laughter from the room.

Personally, Dr. Chastain’s honesty and direct answers were one of my favorite parts of the meeting. He didn’t claim to have all the answers or be an expert – “I’m just a country doctor,” were some of the first words he spoke. He directed people to the literature he believed was trustworthy, seemed up to date on the current line of medical thinking on the pandemic and made a quick exit when the questions ended.

He also delivered one of the best lines – “Healthcare workers are tired.” It was the only time he went into sharing personal feelings while addressing how Smithville’s hospital had to close due to staffing and transferred its patients to River Park. Dr. Chastain said, “if there’s anything we can do to mitigate that, I think we should do it.”

I can’t imagine how many times he’s been asked for medical advice over the last 18 months, but I’m sure if he’s given it, it was clear and concise.

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