BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – At a called Board of Education meeting Thursday evening, the Sullivan County Board of Education voted 5-2 for a mask mandate for students, teachers and staff in Sullivan County Schools.
In accordance with Tennessee Executive Order 84, parents will be able to opt out of the mandate. School board members say the form will be available online.
Unlike similar mandates passed in Johnson City and Washington County schools, teachers and staff will also have the choice to opt out of the mandate.
“I think parents, I think our employees need to make their own decisions when it comes to that. Would I encourage them to wear it? Yes,” School Board Chairman Randall Jones said.
Officials say the mandate will take effect on Monday. Social distancing and deep cleaning protocols will also go into effect.
After almost 300 new cases among students and staff just this week, several board members agreed now was the time for action.
“Our teachers are doing everything they can, and some them ain’t going to like this mask, but we got to try to give them something a little more to keep our kids in school,” said Board Member Paul Robinson.
Jones said the mandate should increase masking among the student population. He estimated the current level of masking to be about 30 percent.
“If we were to be able to get them up to 75 percent to wear it, I think it’s gonna help us especially with the quarantine,” Jones said.
He said masking is especially important because if two students are properly masked, but one tests positive, the close contact does not have to quarantine.
Parents on both sides of the masking issue attended and gave public comments. Sullivan County parent Danielle Goodwin said the measure strikes a balance.
“The board of directors listened to both sides and I think that they made a wise decision,” Goodwin said.
The board also passed a set of recommendations proposed by Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski. That includes implementing forward-facing desks and one-way hallways to reduce contact between students. Students must now also present a letter from a physician or parent to enter quarantine, rather than the Sullivan County Health Department.
Rafalowski also now has the ability to temporarily close an individual grade level, bus route or school if a case surge occurs.
On the day the mask mandate passed, Sullivan County Schools reported 47 students and 11 staff COVID-19 cases confirmed positive by the Sullivan County Regional Health Department and presumed positive cases not yet confirmed.