Bryan County Schools Superintendent Dr. Paul Brooksher had a question for critics of the system’s recently re-instituted policy requiring all students and staffs wear masks on campus.
“Whose science do you want us to use?”
Brooksher, who spoke for about five minutes before a packed house at the beginning of the Aug. 26 school board meeting at the Board of Education’s central office in Black Creek, also vented frustration with at least some critics of the policy.
“It is sad how divided society has become, and the level of incivility is astonishing,” he said. “In the last month I have been called everything from a disgusting human being to the devil, to a murderer of children.” No one at Thursday night’s meeting went that far, and several of those who spoke were complimentary of the system and its leadership.
But the clear consensus among those who spoke out and those who cheered them on was the Bryan County Schools mask mandate is bad policy.
Only Kathryn Strickland, a nurse practitioner, and Col.
Manuel Ramirez, Fort Stewart’s garrison commander, spoke in favor of requiring masks.
Ramirez did so by video, and was booed afterward by a few of those in the room when he encouraged people to “mask up.” The majority of the 10 people signed up to speak cited one or more studies they said show masks do little to stop COVID from spreading among a population not at great risk of catching the disease – their children. Some, like Chad Hostetler, a Richmond Hill parent, started off with numbers from Centers for Disease Control studies he said shows “children 5 to 15 have a higher statistical chance of dying in a car crash, choking, drowning, suicide, cardiovascular disease, homicide and seasonal flu than they do of dying from COVID.” But, Hostetler added, “this has never been about the virus or public health. These mandates are about forcing individuals to lose their freedom, their individual choice and their God-given rights,” he said.
“I hated to send my son to school last year with a mask, knowing he lacked oxygen and was not able to express himself, and not being able to see his friends and teachers face,” Hostetler continued. “He didn’t seem to mind, though. And that was the thing that bothered me the most. I knew he was being controlled for absolutely no reason. We endured mask mandates last year. We can’t do it anymore. We won’t do it anymore.”
Others, like Brent Conley, who said he works as a health and safety manager for a company that daily deals with deadly chemicals, cited what he said is a lack of evidence “that children are at significant risk of catching and dying from COVID 19,” and called the school system’s mandate “against all evidence and the will of taxpayers in this area.”
Conley said he has three children in the school system and two would follow the rules “like citizens of despotic countries they have no choice,” then added a third child can’t function in distance learning or with a mask.
“Yet this superintendent informed us he will wear a mask or he can find another school,” Conley said. “We were told ‘well, if we do it for him, we will have to do it for everyone that asks.’ I would be embarrassed to give such a lazy response to a reasonable request.”
Conley, like others, ultimately said the mandate to wear a mask took their rights as parents from them.
Stephanie Padgett said she had two sons in the district, and one had begun having seizures she said are related to wearing a mask while the other lost his desire to go to school.
“I want to praise the board for the job you’ve done on our local education system,” she said. “Your job is education and you do it well. But my job as a parent is my child’s health and well being. You took that from me when you decided to enforce a mask mandate on our kids.”
Rebecca Ricker said as a pastor’s wife she realized “most people don’t speak up unless they have a complaint,” but thanked the board for “all you do day in and day out,” and then asked them to “listen with all your heart.”
“Parents come to me telling me their kids are suicidal, they’re coming to me telling me their kids are depressed, and have been ever since the school started the mask mandate last year and now this year,” Ricker said, adding, “Give the parents an option. Give the parents a choice to allow their kids to be seen, allow the kids to be normal at school. Kids are not a statistic and not a number. They’re real live human beings that deserve to be valued.”
Another speaker was Claudiu Ene, who said he moved to Richmond Hill because he was told that’s where the good schools were.
“We were told you had the best schools in the state and I believed that,” he said. “I was told this is the place where you want to raise your kids, this is where you want to be.”
But, Ene, added, the mask mandate last school year ruined one child’s senior year and prompted another “to graduate a full year early because she’d rather serve in the military and deploy rather than spend another year in your school.”
And, Ene told the board, “you tell me you’re in the top 10 percent in the state. You tell me you’re innovators, you tell me you think outside the box. Is making masks mandatory thinking outside the box? When there are studies that show something as simple as opening a window or installing a fan has the same effect as an N95 mask?”
He continued: “These aren’t innovations, to just sit there and say here, slap a piece of cloth over your face because that’s what the bottom 10 percent are doing,” adding later, “everyone is telling you they don’t want masks, so find something else. You guys are smart and intelligent, you’re all highly education. You’ve got to have a better solution.”
Not everyone is asking the board to make masks optional, however.
Strickland told the school board she has two small children in the system, and as a nurse, “a lot of what I do at work is coronavirus testing and treatment recommendations. I have a unique and informed view of what CV is doing to our community, and it’s really not pretty.”
Strickland said she’s in favor of “all students and staff properly wearing clean masks,” while “those who have coronavirus- like symptoms or have been exposed to someone with coronavirus infection need to stay home in quarantine for 10 days. And while the board came to the decision to implement this policy later than I had hoped, I applaud you for doing so despite its unpopularity. Thank you.”
Strickland said the system also needs to increase cleanliness, maintain social distancing and improve air handling systems while instituting outdoor classrooms and vaccinating as many students and staff as possible.
But she also asked for more transparency from the school board as well as the option to put their children into an e-learning environment.
“In order for us to make informed decisions, we need the school board to report all positive code and tests including home tests from parent report. We need the school board to report the number of staffing students in quarantine. And we need it broken down by each individual school,” Strickland said.
In his remarks earlier in the meeting, Brooksher defended the system’s transparency while noting many parents are marshaling facts to support their arguments, and “I actually respect the process, because I would do the same thing if I was trying to argue my point.”
And, he said the science isn’t as clear as some argue it is, given conflicting studies and reports.
“I’ve received quite a few emails that refer to me as an idiot for not following the science,” said Brooksher, now in his ninth year as superintendent. “The most amazing thing to me is that each email I receive that refers to me as an idiot includes a different set of science. So who’s science do you want us to use?” Brooksher also said the system won’t “choose sides, play politics or make decisions based on who screams the loudest.”
“We are working hard every day to make what we believe are the best decisions for the kids and our staff. Do we always make the right decisions? No, because no one is perfect. When you support 11,000 children and 1,400 employees the needs can change quickly.” The CDC’s current recommendation is that schools require all students and staff members wear masks, and appears to be in part due to the Delta variant. The board took no action on the mask mandate, which was reimposed earlier this month and is set to continue until Oct. 8 when the first nine weeks ends,, but Chairwoman Amy Murphy thanked those who attended the meeting as well as those who emailed board members and told them, “no one wants to be on the other side of this more than the people on this board.”
Schools are closed Friday so that they can be deep cleaned over the Labor Day weekend, according to an earlier announcement from Brooksher.