Vicksburg Warren School Board votes to end mask mandate after holidays

Published 6:46 pm Thursday, November 18, 2021

Amid an audience of protesters inside the board room and outside, the Vicksburg Warren School District Board of Trustees voted to end its mask mandate following the Christmas holiday.

The meeting began with five-minute presentations from critical care nurse practitioner Shelby Primeaux, whose children attend Beechwood Elementary; Dr. James Archer of the Vicksburg Ministerial Alliance; and Dr. Dan Edney, Chief Medical Officer for the Mississippi State Department of Health.

Primeaux spoke in favor of ending the mask order immediately, while Archer and Edney urged the school board to continue requiring masks.

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“We don’t take away cars, we don’t live without electricity and we don’t take our kids swimming because what if they drowned? We understand there are risks,” Primeaux said. “For children, COVID is not risky.”

Archer, on the other hand, said his concerns stemmed from children infecting their loved ones.

“I ask as ministers that you will consider keeping the mandate in place,” he said. “I understand the political side; it’s not a matter of what’s right or what’s wrong, it’s a matter for what’s best. As leaders what we must do
what’s best for the common good and not for the interests of a select few.”

Edney praised VWSD as an example for other school districts in the state, saying that the board’s decision to continue its mask order has paid off in terms of maintaining a low case number in the wake of the Delta variant.

However, he warned, an upward trend in case numbers is anticipated due to the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Following the presentations, Board Secretary Bryan Pratt began discussion.

“Last month, I made a recommendation to draw a line in the sand and end masks after the holidays. But it did not have support. I personally believe the masks work and vaccines work,” Pratt said. “However, I personally support ending the mask mandate with certain caveats.”

The COVID-19 positivity rate within the district is 7.9 percent, Pratt said — a decrease of 87 percent from the beginning of the school year.

Board President James Stirgus Jr. expressed hesitancy for ending the mask mandate prior to the holidays, citing concerns about an upcoming increase in COVID-19 cases.

“We have Thanksgiving coming up and if you look at how many days that your kids will be at school between now and Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving to Christmas, you will see it doesn’t even total up to 30 days,” Stirgus said. “You will have families coming in from all over; some may be vaccinated, some might not be vaccinated. In my opinion, I think we need to wait until after these two holidays to release the masks because of families that are coming in. And then, I will be the first one to raise my hand and say, ‘It’s an option.’”

Board member Alonzo Stevens made a motion to eliminate masks beginning two weeks after Christmas break ends.

“I make a motion to continue the mask mandate to Jan. 14 and that teachers who are immune-compromised can require masks in their rooms if they so choose,” Stevens said. “We’re not making it mandatory that a teacher does that.

“We have 7,000 kids in our care. We have a lot of good teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria workers that have underlying conditions. To put them in a situation… the timeline is not that bad. These teachers, we didn’t ask them to go into a war zone; we asked them to teach our kids.”

Board member Kimble Slaton stated his agreement with ending the mask mandate sooner rather than later, but cautioned that an increase in cases could change the board’s position on masks.

“Let’s nail this down, set a date and live with it. Let’s give these people some hope,” Slaton said. “The chances of us calling an emergency meeting and going back on it are high. But that’s something we will have to face when we get there.”

The VWSD Board of Trustees voted 3-2 in favor of lifting the mask mandate on Jan. 14, 2022, with the caveat that teachers who are immune-compromised or have loved ones who are immune-compromised may require masks in their classrooms, at the discretion of Superintendent Chad Shealy and their respective school principals.

Slaton and Pratt voted against the motion, and Stirgus, Stevens and board Vice President Sally Bullard voted in favor.

Some concerns were raised about possible HIPAA violations should teachers be required to provide proof, but attorney Blake Teller, who stood in for board attorney Briggs Hopson, stated potential legal issues can be addressed prior to Jan. 14.