Wearing a face mask when school starts in Oxford on Aug. 6 will be optional for students and faculty.
The Oxford School District Board of Trustees voted 4 to 1 Monday night to approve the district’s Return to Learn policy that states, “Face coverings are recommended, but not required for all non-vaccinated faculty, staff, students, and visitors inside OSD buildings.”
Superintendent Bradley Roberson said he was encouraged by the amount of public participation when the district asked for input on the school’s plan but was discouraged by the “spirit” of some of the comments made by people on both sides of the argument.
“It quickly took on a political persona that seems to be driving society today,” he said. “And that is there always has to be a winner or loser. The decision tonight … doesn’t have to be and never should be a zero-sum game. We cannot afford to make decisions regarding children’s education that take from one group to meet the needs of another. The stakes are just too high. We’re not competing against each other. This isn’t a game.”
Roberson said the board has received more than 400 comments in regard to the Return to Learn plan, in particular about whether face masks should be required. Roberson said of those, 319 preferred masks be recommended while 166 preferred masks be required.
The plan also states that all classes will be in person and social distancing will be practiced when possible.
He said the board’s task is a difficult one – to find the balance between the short-term health and safety of the students and the long-term effect of them not receiving a quality education.
The four main goals of the plan are to: maintain a safe and healthy learning environment for staff and students; keep Oxford School District schools open all year; return to normal school operations as much as possible; and sustain the district’s academic standards to ensure student achievement.
Roberson said he used data from several sources while researching the best way the district could achieve all four goals, including from the CDC, other school districts, local vaccination and infection rates and OSD stakeholder feedback.
He said he also polled OSD staff and that 73 percent said they were fully vaccinated and 20 percent of the remaining 21 percent said they plan to begin the vaccination process before school begins.
Board member Ray Hill was the dissenting vote. He said when it came to COVID-19, he and the board have always voted to follow recommendations of the Mississippi State Department of Health, the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics. All three recommend that all non-vaccinated individuals continue to wear face masks in school.
“The policy we are being asked to vote on tonight does not follow the recommendations of these experts,” he said. “Once you choose public opinion over the advice of public health experts, there really is no going back.”
Roberson said the plan is fluid and subject to change as conditions change and that the board will continue to track local data.
“It’s definitely not a time to throw away your masks,” he said. “I just feel this is the best plan we have at this moment to provide our teachers and staff the best opportunity to meet our four goals.”
Some parents expressed concern that children who come to school wearing a mask may be subject to bullying. Roberson said any bullying will be dealt with swiftly.
“I will personally make sure that it is taken care of,” he said.