Policy change: On split vote, BV board makes masks optional

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Students and staff at the Berryville School District are no longer required to wear face coverings on campus as a mitigation factor in combating the spread of COVID-19.

The district board voted to return to a masks-optional status during their regular meeting on Sept. 27, after voting in favor of a mask mandate during its September meeting.

“Last month, whenever we enacted the mask mandate, we said that we would review that monthly to see if we need to keep that going or not,” said superintendent Owen Powell. “There was quite a bit of discussion for and against the mask mandate.”

Owen Powell

In the end, board member LeeAnn Ashford made a motion to continue the mask mandate as part of the school’s Ready for Learning plan with plans to revisit the matter again during October’s meeting or until there are changes to Act 1002, a measure signed into law in the spring that was intended to prevent government and public entities from mandating masks.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has since said on multiple occasions that he regrets signing the bill and even called the legislature into a special session with the intent of readdressing the matter. Legislators couldn’t agree on any possible changes, leaving the ban in place.

However, the law was challenged in court after extremely large outbreaks of COVID-19 in some school districts at the beginning of the school year, prompting Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox to issue a preliminary injunction against the measure, which he called unconstitutional.

During September’s meeting — which was postponed a week because of a COVID quarantine — board members were evenly split on Ashford’s motion, with Chad Hipps, Jeff Tanksley and Jared Phillips voting against and Ashford, Travis Gregory and Linda Winkle voting in favor. Board member Kristi Howerton was absent and the resulting 3-3 vote meant the motion failed.

“Right now, until at least the next board meeting, we don’t have a mask mandate,” Powell said. “It’s recommended, but not required.”

On Aug. 23, the Arkansas Department of Health reported that there had been 27 cases of COVID-19 reported by the Berryville School District since Aug. 1, including 10 faculty and staff and 12 students, resulting in a large number of students and staff quarantined as close contacts in addition to those infected.

Powell said that since then, the number of those infected and quarantined has fallen dramatically.

“Our numbers right now are really low and we hope they stay that way,” Powell said last week. “I think we have four positive cases in the district and I believe we have 27 quarantined.”

Powell added that 20 of those in quarantine were exposed at home rather than at school.

In other business, the board approved the purchase of two new buses for approximately $115,000 each. Rather than paying for the buses out of district funds, Powell said the purchase price would be paid out of the district’s portion of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

“We actually will have to order those and go through that whole process and everything,” Powell said. “We won’t actually get those buses until next school year, but we will have two buses for the next year and we got approval to pay for that out of ESSER funding.”

The board also approved its 2021-2022 budget, along with a motion made by Winkle to submit an application for a permit to issue bonds, with related documents, for $8,985,000 in refunding bonds to the state department of education and to employ First Security Beardsley as fiscal agent, along with authorizing Powell to accept or reject the best bid submitted in connection with the public sale of the proposed bonds in consultation with the fiscal agent.

“Right now, we’re paying about 2.5 percent interest,” Powell said. “If it sells for the estimation, that will save the district $330,000 over the life of that bond. I feel like that’s some really good savings.”

The board also set the date for the graduation ceremony for the Class of 2022, which will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 15, at Bobcat Stadium.

The board’s next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 18, at the district’s administration building.

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