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Facemasks won't be mandatory at school
Grant Swallow on Monday.jpg
Director of Schools Grant Swallows addresses members of the School Board during a meeting Monday night at Bobby Ray Elementary.

Masks will not be required at Warren County Schools, no matter how high the level of COVID infection, according to action taken Monday night by the Warren County Board of Education.

In a meeting held in the Bobby Ray Elementary cafeteria, the School Board voted to modify its existing policy that made facemasks mandatory when the community COVID positivity rate exceeds 25%.

Board members passed a motion that states facemasks are now recommended, not required, when the community is in the red zone, or over 25% of COVID positivity based on test results from the Tennessee Department of Health. 

The measure to change the policy passed 4-2.

Voting in favor of making facemasks recommended instead of required were Sue Anderson, Tanya Bess, Tommy Culwell and Helen Martin.

Voting against the policy revision and wanting to keep facemasks required over the 25% threshold were James Bennett and Bill Zechman.

Gov. Bill Lee presented a significant problem for any school system enforcing a mask mandate on Monday, Aug. 16, when he issued Executive Order No. 84 saying students would have the ability to opt out of any mask requirement with parental consent.

Before the vote, Tommy Culwell said he believes people are letting science and politics interfere with public education.

“We’re doing a disservice to our students,” said Culwell. “Instead of teaching them reading, writing and arithmetic, I’m afraid we’re teaching them fear, hatred and division.”

Bill Zechman was firmly in favor of keeping the mask mandate.

“The very idea we send our children into a shooting gallery where they are very likely to be harmed is repugnant,” said Zechman. “This is basic, commonsense safety. The idea we can opt to expose other people’s children to the coronavirus is repugnant.”

Zechman asked if there was a way to segregate students who want to wear masks from students who don’t. He suggested teaching them in entirely different classrooms. He was told this is not an option. 

Helen Martin indicated she favors the use of facemasks, but thought it would be an extra burden on teachers to determine who had opted out and who hadn’t.

“I do believe in wearing a mask and I do believe in the vaccination,” said Martin. “I don’t want to put any more on our teachers with trying to police this.”

James Bennett, a 38-year educator, spoke against relaxing the facemask policy, saying his primary focus is on keeping students and teachers safe at school.

“I’m in fear of what will happen here in Warren County,” said Bennett. “I know we’ve had six deaths in nine days. When it comes to our children and our teachers, I don’t want to have one death.”

Director of School Grant Swallows, who does not get an official vote in establishing School Board policy, called the situation “incredibly complex.”

“There are a lot of different views and a lot of different points,” said Swallows. “We’ve received a lot of comments from parents and students and I’m glad we received those. At the end of the day we have to focus on educating our kids … I don’t think any of us disagree on the fact we don’t want people to get sick.”

As of Monday, there were 120 students in isolation, Swallows announced. That means they have tested positive for COVID. There were 895 students in quarantine, which means contact tracing determined them to be in close contact with a positive person.