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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Faith Pruitt, 5, stands outside the East Lake Courts Community Center as her mother Dominique tries to put a mask on her two-year-old brother Nehemiah so that they could receive a free COVID-19 test from the Tennessee National Guard on Thursday, May 21, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Children will not be required to wear face masks at Hamilton County Schools' school-age child care locations this summer, district officials confirmed Thursday.

After a tense debate among board members, Chief Operations Officer Justin Robertson clarified the intended policies regarding wearing face masks, which is one of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most visible recommendation for fighting COVID-19.

Robertson said the district had heard some concern about requirements for children to wear masks at the child care locations this summer.

"We are trying to follow CDC guidelines, and it's recommended that kids wear masks. Obviously, we know [with] five, six, seven, eight-year-olds, the likelihood of them wearing masks all day is slim to none," Robertson said. "We understand that there are going to be times that children are pulling their masks off or they are running around. Kids are going to be kids."

About 400 children are registered to attend one of the district's 25 locations this summer, starting on June 1.

Board member Rhonda Thurman of District 1 said that some of the sites had not reached the enrollment capacity of 25 students because of the original information give to students that required students to wear masks.

"This is why, a lot of it is is because we're requiring masks for children," Thurman said.

Thurman expressed concerns about where children will store masks when they aren't wearing them them during lunch or recess, if children would be required to wear them all day and who would touch the masks.

"The kids wearing masks is the worst thing they could do because they get dirty, they probably drop them in the toilet, God only knows what gets on them," she said. "My grandson won't go if he has to wear one. ... It'll be interesting to know how that's going to work."

Robertson's confirmation that children won't be required to wear masks sparked pushback from board member Jenny Hill of District 6, as well as a debate over when board members will begin meeting in-person at the Hamilton County Department of Education's central office again.

"That discussion about when we go back into the board room goes hand and hand to me with this conversation about regulations on masks versus grace versus practicality," Hill said. "It really concerns me that the first pushback against a standard that our district has set as what we intend to have for our health and safety for our students would be to say, 'Oh, we know it's not really going to work, just do your best.' The standards that we set need to be practical enough to be implemented with consistency across every single site.

"We set the tone. If we all need to wear masks when we walk into that building, then I think we all need to wear masks out of respect for the board policy."

Employees will be required to wear masks at the 25 school-age child care locations this summer, per CDC guidance, and students will be encouraged to do so as well, Robertson told the board. Students will not be required to wear masks while outside or on the playground but will be encouraged to wear them in small groups or in small classrooms, he explained.

Superintendent Bryan Johnson also acknowledged that CDC guidance gives leeway when it comes to children over the age of two wearing masks and said that the district hopes to learn what works and what doesn't from these sites this summer before all 44,000 Hamilton County students go back to school this fall.

As for when the board will meet physically in-person again, that is still unclear. Legally, the state is allowing individual elected bodies to make that decision, and those who feel it is unsafe to attend an in-person meeting can legally opt to attend it virtually.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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