“The Buck Stops With The Parent”: Parents express concern with face-covering requirements in schools

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By Hannah Lester
hlester@opelikaobserver.com 

Auburn City Schools has followed in Opelika City Schools’ footsteps. The Auburn Board of Education voted last week to require face coverings for students during the first six weeks of school. 

“With the priority of returning safely to full-time, in-person learning on campus, I recommend the revision of the Auburn City Schools Fall 2021 Return To Learning Plan with the modification to masking requirements,” said Superintendent Dr. Kristen Herring. “… With respect for the position and opinion of each student and stakeholder, I am committed to the diligent study of our school data, the data of our local community and the assessment of our safe return to school.”

Masking will only be required for the first six weeks of school, seven weeks from the date the mandate was instituted. Then, the data will be reevaluated, Herring said, and she will present another report to the board on Sept. 14. 

Twenty-five parents and students spoke during the meeting. The majority were against the masking requirement, though two spoke in favor of masking. 

One parent said she was concerned with how the requirement would be enforced. Another said he wanted to know what data was being utilized to make the decision. 

The majority were concerned with freedom of choice and parental autonomy over their children.

“What I’m asking this for is to not overreach,” said one parent, Rod Burkey. “Don’t be the overreacher. Be the ones that can make a decision today that’s going to satisfy everybody. You have that opportunity. You can make a decision. You can leave it up to us as the parents … Don’t take away our parental autonomy. That’s a God-given right, to be able to have the opportunity to decide what is best for my children. I’m the only one who can. Until the court judicates that I cannot make those decisions for my children, I am the one making those decisions.”

Another parent, Jason Pratt, said he supported masking children in the school system. 

“The data says that the masks I’m wearing are up to 70% effective of blocking, of me transmitting it to you,” he said. “… It’s protecting me 17%. So if I want to protect myself I can choose to wear a mask or not. I’m wearing a mask to protect you. The whole point is, we should have our children protecting each other.”

Some parents were concerned with health issues they said masks present, such as anxiety and depression.

Andrea Tobin said that her son has been in speech therapy for years, and struggles to communicate with a mask on.

“He could not talk, he could not articulate,” she said. “I don’t want my baby boy going into the second grade not being able to articulate himself, not being able to hear himself speaking because of his mask.”

A local optometrist and parent, Helen Hadley, said that masks make learning difficult for children with glasses and masking requirements have affected their learning. 

After listening to all of the parents speak, Herring made her recommendation. Herring did not finish her statement before parents began to leave the room. 

“We are faced with challenging decisions and local data that places us in a difficult position, which is why we are asking teachers, staff, students and families in Auburn City Schools to give us the opportunity to re-acclimate to a school environment and assess our situation,” Herring said. “If we are able to demonstrate an ability to bring students and staff together safely, we will reconsider this requirement.”

The board then made its decision to require masks in the school and on the bus. Masks will not be required outdoors. 

Additionally, according to CDC guidelines, if students are exposed, and have had COVID-19 in the last 90 days, are vaccinated or properly masked, they will not need to quarantine.

Pushback To City Council:

Parents expressed discontent during the Auburn School Board meeting, but have also begun working outside of the meeting. 

A private Facebook group has formed, Lee County Parents Speak Out, with almost 800 members as of press time. 

“This group is to keep the parents of Lee County, Auburn and Opelika, AL schools connected in fighting for the right to choose what is best for your individual child. Here we can keep each other updated on school board meetings, and how to go about speaking out about policies and mandates in our schools. Please only invite those who you know are against covering our children’s smiles all day long and will be a support to this group. We are not here to argue with each, but to support each other and to support our schools in doing what is best for each INDIVIDUAL child, guided by their parents.”

The group has posts encouraging people to attend local meetings, sharing messages from public officials and sharing news articles. 

Residents spoke out at both Auburn and Opelika City Council meetings Tuesday night. 

During Auburn’s City Council Meeting, over 20 citizens spoke regarding the Auburn City School Board of Education’s decision.

Auburn Mayor Ron Anders made a statement at the beginning of the meeting letting citizens know that the city council does not have the authority to overrule the school board’s decision. 

“That doesn’t mean we walk away from our accountability to the citizens of this city because we do make those appointments and most importantly, things that are concerning to you should be concerning to the city council,” Anders said. “… There’s nothing more precious in this community than our children and we respect the fact that you’re concerned about your children.”

The parents, grandparents and students in attendance spoke majoritively against masking children in schools. Many additionally brought signs and held them against the windows outside the meeting room. 

Steven Smith expressed the similar frustration of many parents — the Auburn City School Board of Education did not listen to parents, he said. 

“It did seem to appear that the school board listened to the different views but then didn’t adjourn, didn’t have a meeting, or didn’t appear that there was, and they basically had their decision made before even hearing everybody speak,” he said. “So I think a lot of this is that people are wanting them to hear them tonight and I think that’s why this is being addressed to you guys.”

Parents reiterated their concerns from the Board of Education meeting, including the ineffectiveness of masks, the difficulties for children who wear glasses, have asthma or speech problems and the right for parental autonomy. 

Following the meeting, many citizens spoke with their council members. 

“I would commend everyone coming out to speak their voice,” said Ward 5 Council Member Steven Dixon. “I think it’s really important, it’s really healthy for the community to come out and speak.”

Ward 6 Council Member Bob Parsons said that he appreciates people looking more closely into how their city government is run. 

Ward 4 Council Member Brett Smith said that he appreciated hearing parents’ concern during the Auburn City School Board of Education meeting, which he attended as a parent with children in the school system.

“I was proud that they got involved,” he said. “Proud they got the opportunity. Because it was nice. Wherever you are on the issue, listening to people stand up for their kids is an awesome experience.”

Smith also said that he was in agreement with the majority of the parents who spoke and believes the school board made the wrong decision. 

“I think at the end of the day, I think we have to parent our kids and I think it’s our responsibility to make healthcare decisions for our children,” he said. “Now we should look to experts and listen to experts on what they think, we should listen to what they advise but the end of the day, the buck stops with the parent as it comes to healthcare decisions for our children.”

Auburn University:

Auburn University also announced that all professors, faculty, staff, students and visitors will be required to wear face coverings while indoors or on university transportation.

“The revised faces coverings policy aligns with the latest guidance from the CDC as well as recommendations from university medical staff, local health officials and the Alabama Department of Public Health,” said a statement from the university on its COVID-19 Resource Center. “Beyond this temporary measure, Auburn does not intend to adjust operational or instructional plans.”

Those who are vaccinated will also be required to wear face coverings. Those alone in private offices do not have to wear masks, nor will individuals need to wear them while eating.

Additionally, face coverings will not be required while in resident halls with roommates or in the Recreation and Wellness Center, along with other “open-air athletics venues,” the statement said.

“Face coverings, along with other safe practices, are an important means of preventing the spread of COVID-19,” the release said. 

Additionally, the university urged individuals to get their COVID-19 vaccine, which is available at the Auburn University Medical Center, local pharmacies or East Alabama Medical Center. 

The COVID-19 Resource Center also includes information about self-reporting, hygiene measures, quarantine and cleaning around campus.

Opelika City Schools:

Opelika announced on July 27 that its students will be required to wear masks or face coverings while indoors beginning Aug. 9. 

“Due to the upward trend of COVID transmission and the current local positivity rate, this decision is in the best interest of our students and staff at this time,” said Dr. Mark Neighbors, superintendent, in the press release. “It is important for everyone to follow the guidelines and do their part to help us have a safe and successful start to the school year.”

Lee County School System:

The Lee County School System has not announced what it will do regarding face coverings during the school year.

There are two petitions against the face-coverings in school.

Auburn City Schools: https://www.change.org/p/auburn-city-school-system-no-masks-requirements-in-auburn-city-scools

Opelika City Schools: https://www.change.org/p/dr-mark-neighbors-opelika-city-schools-no-masks-for-2021-2022-school-year-opelika-city-schools

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