Note: This story was last updated at 12 a.m.
The Oak Ridge Board of Education approved a mask mandate in a 3-1 vote on Monday.
The approval of the mask mandate, which is similar to a mandate at four Anderson County schools, occurred as the school system reported about 180 COVID-19 cases among students and staff members in less than three weeks. COVID cases have now been reported at all schools: the preschool, all four elementary schools, both middle schools, the high school, and Secret City Academy.
The mask mandate approved Monday will require masks indoors in school buildings unless the school system has received a written opt-out notice from a parent or guardian in compliance with an executive order issued by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee last week.
The Oak Ridge school year started Wednesday, July 28, with face masks being optional. However, as cases increased significantly in three schools, masks were required there. Those three schools were Jefferson Middle School, Robertsville Middle School, and Willow Brook Elementary School.
The mandate was proposed by Oak Ridge school board member Angi Agle. Board member Ben Stephens supported it. So did board member Erin Webb.
Agle said case numbers are rising more quickly than they did last year. Also, the more transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 doesn’t spare children like the earlier version of the virus, Agle said. Education officials want to keep children in school and, to the extent possible, decrease required quarantines so students spend more time learning in classrooms, rather than in online instruction.
“The best way to achieve that is to keep them as safe as possible,” Agle said. “Universal masking is the only thing I can think of that we’re not doing.”
Stephens and Webb said they would rather be safe.
“If the masks even help spare one death, it’s worth it,” Stephens said. “The lives of students and staff have to come first.”
Webb said she would prefer not to wear a mask, and she and her family have been vaccinated.
However, voting for the mandate, she said, “I would just rather err on the side of caution.”
Besides the three school board members, the mask mandate was supported by a dozen speakers, including two nurses and two school teachers.
No member of the public opposed the mandate.
Oak Ridge school board vice chair Laura McLean, serving as chair on Monday, cast the one vote against the mandate. Oak Ridge Board of Education Chair Keys Fillauer was not present.
McLean expressed concern about asking teachers to scrutinize a list of who should be wearing a mask each day in addition to their other tasks.
“We can’t ask our teachers to be the mask police,” McLean said. She said a mandate with an opt-out was “unwieldy and unrealistic,” and she said she was not sure it would cut down on the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The largest number of COVID cases this year remains at Robertsville, where 56 student cases have been reported, with 25 of those current. One staff case has been reported at RMS.
The second-largest number of cases is still at Willow Brook, which had the first outbreak. Willow Brook has had 45 student cases, with 12 of those current, and four staff cases.
Jefferson has had 22 student cases, with three of those current, and two staff cases.
Oak Ridge High School has now had 23 student cases, with 10 of those current, and three staff cases.
Linden Elementary School has had 12 student cases, with two of those current.
Students have accounted for about 94 percent of the cases, 171 of the 181 total. There have been 10 staff cases. One staff member has been hospitalized this year. Three staff members were hospitalized last year.
There were 60 current student cases on Monday, and no current staff cases, according to Oak Ridge Schools.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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