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Photo by Anika Chaturvedi | Community members talk with four Hamilton County school board members about the school district's mask requirement following a meeting on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Following the Hamilton County school board meeting on Thursday, one meeting attendee called out to Chair Joe Wingate from the back of the meeting room.

"Mr. Chairman, I request a moment of your time please," he said.

What followed was an unusual gathering of a group of 15 to 20 parents with a handful of board members to talk about the topic of the week —masks.

Wingate joined board members Tucker McClendon of East Ridge, Rhonda Thurman of Hixson and newly appointed member James Walker of Birchwood.

Most of the visitors were opposed to the school district's new requirement that students and staff wear masks to guard against the spread of COVID-19. They talked for an hour after the meeting adjourned.

The meeting attendees, scattered around one half of the board room, sometimes finished each other's sentences or cut each other off when stating the reasons why they did not agree with the mask requirement. They asked board members, who were still sitting or standing by their seats on the far side of the room, why masks were required and no longer optional.

Wingate told the group that the school board did not make the decision to require masks — that came from the administration.

Mask opt-out form

The document requires parents to acknowledge:

— I have signed this form freely and voluntarily, and I am authorized to make decisions for the student.

— I acknowledge that HCHD and the CDC recommend that students wear face coverings in the school environment to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

— I have had the opportunity to discuss with health care providers whether my student should wear a face covering.

— I understand that there is a great deal the medical and scientific communities still do not know about COVID-19, including how easily it may spread and its long-term effects on the health of a child. I understand and agree, therefore, that there is an unknown risk associated with my student attending school without a face covering, and I have discussed these risks with my student.

— I understand that the student is still required to comply with all local, state or federal orders regarding face coverings, including any federal order when riding on a school bus.

— I understand that the student is still required to follow all TSSAA rules and guidelines regarding face coverings, if participating in school athletics.

— With the exception of face covering requirements, I understand that the student shall remain subject to all other school and school district requirements, including those related to COVID-19.

— I understand that I may update this permission form for my student at any time by completing the form available to me through PowerSchool Parent Portal.

— I give my student permission not to wear a face covering at school, and for myself and my student, I assume any and all risks associated with this decision.

"You can't as a school system say, even if you don't agree with the established standard of care, you can't say 'I hear what you're saying, county mayor, I hear what you're saying, county health department ... but we're gonna do our own thing,'" Wingate told the group. "Because when you do that, you've removed yourself from the umbrella, you put yourself in a highly liable situation.

"It's not about whether you want a mask or don't want a mask. The reality is, in the state of Tennessee — now the state of Georgia, school systems are sovereign governing bodies, they can govern themselves and do it the way they see fit. It just doesn't work that way in Tennessee."

Some attendees were parents who said their kids developed headaches from wearing masks or had other medical conditions, like asthma, and could not wear one. Others said they were worried that children would be bullied for not wearing a mask and that masks caused depression and other mental health issues for children.

Walker told the group that parents reached out to him with concerns about the opt-out form for parents to excuse their children from the rule. When they filled it out on the parent portal, it auto-populated with a students' personal information.

"If I'm a parent — and this is James Walker speaking as an individual — if I want to opt out, then I would make a note, send to the school and say 'my son opts out, he's not wearing a mask,'" Walker said.

The group said the five minutes allotted to speakers to address the board at meetings were not enough and asked the board what they should do, claiming they weren't being heard through calls or emails to the board and other elected officials.

Thurman suggested the group reach out to churches and ask to use the space for a forum.

"You can present even there what you just presented to the board as well, present some of the evidence that you have of some of these things going on in the schools, that might be a good place to do it, that way you wouldn't be limited to your five minutes or whatever," Thurman said. "That's what I would suggest."

Hamilton County Schools announced the mask requirement Wednesday evening. The requirement took effect for staff on Thursday, the first day of school, and will take effect Monday for students unless families opt them out.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

 

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