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Decherd Elementary School Principal Chris Hawkersmith poses the School Board Monday with questions about how disciplinary action would be handled for students who disobey a mask-wearing mandate.

To mask or not to mask was a big question the Franklin County School Board was faced with answering this past week, and it decided on a partial answer.

Rising COVID-19 numbers in the system, compounded by the recent death of North Lake Principal George Butler, prompted recommendations by some teachers and school officials to consider a system-wide mask mandate.

However, the School Board compromised by singling out Franklin County High School, which has had the highest COVID-19 numbers among the system’s 11 schools.

Following a recommendation from Director of Schools Stanley Bean, Board Member Chris Guess motioned that FCHS be under a mask mandate until March 11 and the school move to a transitional schedule where students will go to the campus on alternate days.

The mask mandate and the transitional schedule will begin on Monday, meaning students will be divided into A and B groups with group A on campus Mondays and Thursdays and the B group attending on Tuesdays and Fridays.

The groups will alternate attending school on Wednesdays, and students will be given homework when they are away from campus.

The move is designed to reduce on-campus student numbers to create greater social distancing.

The county’s middle schools will continue as they have been doing with optional mask wearing but will be developing a plan to go to the transitional schedule if need be if COVID numbers escalate.

The system’s elementary schools have reported lower COVID numbers and will remain with optional mask wearing, and proper hygiene practices are encouraged.

Guess said a system-wide mask mandate has its drawbacks because it would, in effect, be dictating health practices to students and ultimately their families, which he described as a “slippery slope” that would draw considerable opposition if it were adopted system-wide.

Guess’ motion was seconded by Board Member Lance Williams, and Board Members CleiJo Walker, Caycee Hanger Roberts, Christine Hopkins and Linda Jones also supported it in a 6-2 vote.

Board Members Sarah Marhevsky and Sara Liechty were in opposition, stating that the mask mandate should be system-wide.

Marhevsky followed by motioning to require all students wear masks, and her effort was supported by Liechty, which resulted in a failed reverse vote to Guess’ original motion.

Bean made the point that the individual schools could make their own mask-wearing requirements through their principals as was allowed at the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year when Sewanee Elementary School decided to do so.

Jones, Hopkins, Marhevsky and Liechty participated in the meeting through internet videoconferencing.

Jones said she was at home personally battling COVID-19 and understands the concern for having a system-wide mask requirement. However, she said such a requirement might be difficult to implement, and all sides of the issue need to be thoroughly studied.

The board fielded input from principals about the impact COVID-19 has had on their schools.

FCHS Principal Dr. Roger Alsup said his student body is “social and mobile” — normal for the age group — which has resulted in 98 students testing positive for COVID-19 this year. He added that another 300 had to be quarantined.

Bean said FCHS has half the system’s total COVID numbers.

Alsup said he would prefer that masks not be required, but the COVID-19 numbers have led to staffing difficulties and have interrupted the class schedule.

“Something needs to be done,” he told the board, adding that masks and going to a transitional schedule might be necessary to improve the situation.

Some principals said requiring teachers to continually wear masks in classrooms could make it harder for students to understand what they are being taught. They said that, in addition to having difficulty in being able to hear what is being said, masks also block lip movements, making interpretation more difficult.

Marhevsky said that requiring masks at Sewanee Elementary School has had positive results and has posed few problems for the students, faculty and administration because they have adapted to the mandate and have gotten used to it. She added it would be the same for other system schools.

Decherd Elementary School Principal Chris Hawkersmith said requiring masks is easier said than done, and he posed a series of questions to the board about what might happen if small children were made to comply.

He questioned what punitive measures would be required for students who either didn’t wear masks or improperly used them. He also said the equation becomes more difficult when the children are on buses, which includes a large percentage of the Decherd students.

Hawkersmith asked if the school system might need to have more alternative school options for increased student numbers who would need to be disciplined.

Liechty said students in Alabama have been required to wear masks because it is a state requirement and have adapted accordingly. She said the same would occur if the Franklin County School System followed suit.

However, Hawkersmith said the situation would be more difficult with students from different backgrounds who have parents who would oppose a mask-wearing requirement. He added that parents considering home schooling might take the final step to pull their children out of school.

Huntland Principal Ken Bishop said he had a parent say earlier in the day that they would homeschool their child if a mask mandate were approved.

Board members said they hope the conditions will improve, and are optimistic the mask mandate for FCHS will be temporary.