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WATCH: Lakeside School Board weighs mask decision

by Brandon Smith | January 6, 2022 at 4:04 a.m.
Lakeside School Board Vice President Bart Bledsoe comments during Wednesday morning's workshop meet in the Lakeside High School safe room cafeteria. - Photo by Tyler Wann of The Sentinel-Record

Two days after reinstating its mask requirement policy due to the district exceeding its 1% positive COVID-19 case threshold, the Lakeside School Board is looking for answers.

The board held a special workshop Wednesday morning in which it weighed the benefits of students wearing masks, or not. The district went into the "gold zone," or having more than 20 cases in the community per 10,000 people, for the first time in months when it recorded 22 cases last Friday. This comes prior to Arkansas reaching a record-setting 6,562 new infections Tuesday, with 100 being from Garland County.

Lakeside High School Nurse Kelly Orr reported 31 positive cases of COVID-19 among students and staff as of the meeting, with 42 in quarantine. Orr said most of those quarantined are from household exposure. She noted that about 97% of those who test positive for COVID contract it outside of school. Schools are only allowed to use the Test to Stay program, which allows students, who would otherwise be quarantined, to stay in school with special testing if the infection is from school exposure.

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Lakeside Superintendent Shawn Cook said he attended a Zoom meeting on Tuesday with Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Health Dr. Jose Romero and other superintendents throughout the state. While Romero still recommends that schools require masks be worn, survey results amongst the districts show an insignificant difference between those schools that required masks and those that did not.

"The main question, I think more than anything, is if we wear masks, is that going to keep that number down," he said. "And what I'm seeing is, when you compare school to school, you're not seeing a difference. ... I personally think it's more about, 'Is it in your community or not?' Not if you're wearing masks or not. Because the last time we took the masks off, our numbers started going down. Well, I don't think our numbers went down because we took our masks off. I think our numbers went down just because it was moving out of the community."

Board President Carla Mouton noted her concern, as well.

"I really believe that the masks, unless it's the right mask and unless it's worn properly ... I don't know how effective it is," she told The Sentinel-Record following the workshop. "I also believe that if we have that one child who's going to get incredibly sick, and if (my) having that mask on -- then it's worth it to keep that child from getting that sick."

Mouton said she believes vaccinations are the major key to stopping the spread of the virus and that there are so many variables with the masks.

"I've gotten emails and I know (the board members) all have from the teachers, especially the speech pathologists, and people teaching little ones," she said during the meeting. "You know, you can't read much in a face when you're masked. I don't know what the answer is. I'm listening to podcasts, I'm reading studies from the U.K., I mean, I'm just trying to glean all the information I can, and there is harm to these masks. And the harm is that ability to teach, that ability to read a kid's face with the emotional, the mental (aspects)."

Cook said he believes masks are certainly effective when worn properly. He also noted the significance of wearing N95 masks.

"In an ideal world, if everybody's wearing them right, maybe we would see a big difference in schools that require masks and schools that didn't," he said. "I think the reason we're seeing that there's almost no difference -- kids aren't going to wear them right. They're not going to wear N95 masks. I'm just saying, I'm going down the hall yesterday at the junior high, (Lakeside Assistant Superintendent) Mr. (Bruce) Orr and I are going down, about every kid we seen, we're saying, 'Pull your mask up.' 'Pull your mask up.' 'Pull your mask up.' Right when they go out of our view, what do you think they're doing? They're taking their mask back down below their nose."

Kids' ability to socialize is also hindered by the masks, he noted.

"And then we go at lunch, kids are starving to socialize because the teachers been making them keep their mask on, so they're getting as close as they can at lunch," he said. "At 3 o'clock, they all gather in their cars together. So if you ask me why do you think that there's not a difference in schools that wear masks and schools that don't, that's it. It's how they're wearing them, what time they're wearing them, and pretty much they're just wearing them at school. I'd ask you to ask yourself that question too, where else do you see people wear a mask?"

Cook noted the importance of the district making sure it receives input from students, parents, staff, and the medical community to make the best decision. While the mask mandate stays in effect, the board will discuss the issue again at its Jan. 18 regular monthly board meeting.

"I want people to understand that we're not taking this lightly, that we're not dismissing anybody," Mouton said. "I mean, hate mail is a little strong, but we have some people who vehemently disagree and we are digesting that and processing that as well as we can along with the people who, 'Oh, Ms. Mouton, you're doing a great job.' I mean, it's nice to hear that but it's also nice to hear the other because we know that is the reality. So please keep us informed. Please continue giving us the information."

  photo  Lakeside School District Superintendent Shawn Cook, back, far left, comments during Wednesday morning's workshop meet in the Lakeside High School safe room cafeteria. - Photo by Tyler Wann of The Sentinel-Record

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