‘An extra layer of protection’: New school year begins with mask mandate, vaccine clinic

Tuesday, August 31, 2021
Eureka Springs High School sophomore Stella Bentley shows off her Band-Aid after getting her first COVID-19 vaccination at the Eureka Springs School District’s open house on Thursday, Aug. 12.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part series on the effects in Eureka Springs of the ongoing COVID-19 surge.

The Eureka Springs School District was one of the first schools in Arkansas to approve a mask mandate for the 2021-2022 school year, and Superintendent Bryan Pruitt stands behind that decision despite the criticism he’s heard locally, regionally and statewide.

“When it comes down to it, we’re going to do what’s best for our kids,” Pruitt said. “I’m sure some people don’t like it, but for the safety of our school, it’s what we’ve got to do.”

Pruitt said he learned the Fayetteville School District had approved a mask mandate after the Eureka Springs School Board’s Aug. 9 meeting, where the board unanimously voted to approve a district-wide mask mandate that would be re-evaluated at each board meeting. That vote came after Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox ruled Aug. 6 to block a newly enacted state law that bans state and local mask mandates.

“If we weren’t the first, we were the second,” Pruitt said, saying other school districts have passed similar mandates over the last week. “Us going ahead and doing that, it made it a lot easier for other schools to jump in and do it too.”

When the 2020-2021 school year ended in May, Pruitt said the district’s 70 percent vaccination rate was a good sign that a mask mandate wouldn’t be necessary again. But then the Delta variant picked up speed, targeting children more harshly this time. Pruitt said he immediately thought of the students 12 and under who can’t get vaccinated.

“We want to protect our young kids,” Pruitt said. “It was easy to recommend masks to the board. We’re all on the same page here.”

High school principal David Gilmore agreed, saying the mask mandate makes everyone feel more comfortable about coming to school as the Delta variant surges in Northwest Arkansas. Gilmore said the Centers for Disease Control has separate guidelines for those who are vaccinated and those who aren’t, but the school district opted for an across-the-board mandate because students and teachers regularly move between buildings.

“I have students down in the high school daily who are under the age of 12, and we have to think about their rights and how to protect them,” Gilmore said. “A lot of my teachers have felt relieved with the mask mandate — much more comfortable and secure.”

Math coach and testing coordinator Maria Ellis said it’s more difficult to teach wearing a mask.

“But it doesn’t matter how we feel about the mask. These kids are our responsibility and their safety is our first priority,” Ellis said.

Middle school principal Cindy Holt said most students don’t mind wearing a mask at all.

“They look at it without some of the biases adults have. To them, it’s just what it is,” Holt said. “It’s just a virus and it’s just the science. It’s not anything political.”

Kindergarten teacher Alissa Horton echoed that sentiment.

“I was really surprised at our young kids last year. They did better with the masks than most adults do,” Horton said. “It really did not seem to bother them.”

Elementary school principal Clare Lesieur described how the mask policy works, saying her building has red, green and yellow zones. Students are required to wear a mask at all times in red zones, such as the bathroom and the hallways. In yellow zones, they can remove their mask when given permission, separated by distance and desk shields in the classroom and the cafeteria. They can take off the mask outdoors, the only green zone, so long as they keep their distance from one another.

“We’re really good about making sure they don’t wear masks seven hours a day, but only at designated times can they put the mask down,” Lesieur said.

Horton remembered meeting parents at the school’s open house on Aug. 12, saying the desk shields and the mask mandate have calmed many parents who were hesitant to enroll their students in school last year. While kindergarten enrollment was down last year, Horton said, it has increased quite a bit this year.

“The mask mandate has helped parents make that decision,” Horton said. “When the parents came in and saw the desk shields and the distancing, I heard a lot of them say, ‘OK, we can do this.’ ”

Eureka Springs Middle School teacher Gideon Keas (left) talks with Renae Yarberry and her son Ricky at the school’s open house on Thursday, Aug. 12.

Also at the open house, the district held a community vaccine clinic. Holt said she was happy with the turnout at the clinic, and middle school nurse Kevin Vaverka said it was good to see so many kids getting vaccinated.

“It will help keep the numbers down, I hope,” Vaverka said.

Sophomore Stella Bentley, who received her first shot, said she got vaccinated because it’s important.

“I don’t want to be going around places without the vaccine,” Bentley said. “I feel like that’s more important now, and I didn’t want to keep putting it off.”

As for the mask mandate, Bentley is unbothered.

“I feel safer with it. I would’ve felt weird if we didn’t have to have masks,” Bentley said. “I feel like we still need them.”

Junior Julie McGarrah said she got vaccinated to avoid being quarantined during volleyball season.

“And there’s also a lot of other people getting the virus, and I didn’t want my parents or grandparents to get it,” McGarrah said.

Seventh-grader Alaina Clayton said she got vaccinated for the safety of the school. That’s also why she will wear a mask without complaint, Clayton said.

“It’s just a part of life right now,” Clayton said. “I kind of like it but I don’t like it, but I’m already used to it so I don’t really care.”

The mask mandate isn’t new, but the district’s virtual program is. The school board agreed Aug. 9 to work with Edgenuity to offer virtual learning to students who meet the criteria for the program. Gilmore said the district wasn’t planning on having a virtual learning option at the end of last year, but it became necessary as the virus surged over the summer.

“I always feel like kids are going to learn better on site,” Gilmore said. “The numbers were spiking so we felt we should offer virtual again.”

This virtual program is different from last year’s program. Gilmore said virtual students will have a dedicated teacher through the program, allowing the teachers at the district to focus on teaching students on site. Ellis said she liked that aspect of the program. Since she works with students throughout the district, Ellis said, she will be working with virtual students more closely than other teachers.

“Because of testing, I’ll still be in touch with those kiddos,” Ellis said.

While she didn’t have many virtual students last year, Horton said the new program is a huge help. She remembered teaching all day last year, then logging on at 4 p.m. to answer questions from virtual students. Students deserve to have their questions answered sooner than that, Horton said.

“The new program will be more beneficial to the kids,” Horton said. “We will still monitor and provide extra support if there’s a need for that.”

Pruitt said it’s his job to ensure the staff and students have all the support they need. The school’s safety policies prevented a shutdown last year, Pruitt said, and he hopes that will be true this year. He recalled feeling frustrated on Zoom meetings with administrators throughout the state who were debating safety policies.

“I got sick of listening to these other superintendents whine and complain,” Pruitt said. “I wanted to tell them to make a decision and protect their kids. Let’s educate them. Quit worrying about putting it off on somebody. Make your decision and get on with it.”

That’s exactly what the school board has done, Pruitt said, and he’s confident the safety policies will protect the district’s most vulnerable students.

“We’re very fortunate and blessed at this school that our kids are coming to learn and they’re receptive to the masks,” Pruitt said. “They encourage us by their willingness to follow safety guidelines, and we want to provide the best opportunity we can for them while they’re here.”

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