SPRINGDALE -- The Springdale School Board on Tuesday voted 4-1 to end the requirement to wear masks in schools.
Eddie Ramos was the only board member who voted against ending the requirement. Michelle Cook, board president, and Debbie Creek, a board member, abstained.
"We're all in the same boat here," said board member Clinton Bell. "I don't want to send a single student to school with a mask."
To mitigate the spread of covid-19, the board voted Aug. 10 to approve a 30-day policy requiring masks for students in kindergarten through seventh grade while they were indoors or on buses. Masks were deemed optional for students in grades eight through 12, for staff members and for visitors.
The policy expired Tuesday, Bell said.
About a dozen people signed up to comment about masks at the board's meeting, including Sherry Zimmerman, who said she's a grandmother.
Zimmerman spoke out against the mask policy, saying she sees it as a form of government overreach.
"This mask mandate was supposed to be temporary," she said. "You are trying to take away our freedoms one mandate at a time."
Robert Beard, a former teacher at George Junior High School, encouraged the board to extend the mask policy. Beard said he had to leave his teaching position with the district because of masks being optional for students in grades eight through 12, as his child has a heart condition that puts her at high risk due to covid-19.
Beard requested that the board extend the policy to apply to kindergarten through 12th grade to lower the number of quarantines and reduce the risk of contracting covid-19 for staff members and students at all grade levels.
Jared Cleveland, the district's superintendent, shared information on a letter he sent to Gov. Asa Hutchinson last week requesting changes to the the state's covid-19 quarantine guidelines.
The district identified 6,332 probable close contacts who met covid-19 quarantine requirements because of school exposure during the 2020-21 school year, according to the letter. Of those, 104 people, or 1.6%, tested positive for covid-19.
"As an education leader, I see this statistic as 6,228 individuals who were unnecessarily away from either school or work impacting teaching and learning in our district," Cleveland said.
Current guidelines allow people who have been exposed to covid-19 to remain in school if they've been fully vaccinated or if both the infected and exposed person are masked, he said.
"This has significantly decreased the number of students and staff that are required to quarantine; however, it appears we continue to over-quarantine our students and staff," Cleveland said.
As of Sunday, the district had identified 785 probable close contacts who met the guidelines for quarantine because of school exposure since the start of this school year. Of those, six people, or 0.8%, have tested positive for covid-19, said Kendra Clay, the district's general counsel.
The statistic parallels what the district experienced last year, Cleveland said.
A potential solution to over-quarantining is to modify the current guidelines that require both the exposed and the infected individual to be masked to prevent the quarantine of the exposed individual, he said.
Cleveland recommended in the letter that the governor consider allowing students and staff members who are masked to remain in school if exposed, regardless of whether the infected person is masked.
"The quarantining modification would remove immense pressure on school boards to implement mask mandates in divided communities," Cleveland said. "Many school boards implemented mask policies solely as a way to limit quarantines, knowing that the spread of covid-19 in schools has been minimal."
Hutchinson has requested that the Arkansas Department of Health review previous and current Springdale School District data over the next week to explore any next steps in response to the letter, Cleveland said.
"He was very open to reviewing our data," he said. "Hopefully, as we move forward, there will be a lot of changes."