The Williamson County Schools Board of Education voted to extend the districtwide mask requirement for students, staff and visitors through Jan. 19 of 2022 during its meeting on Monday.
This was WCS Superintendent Golden’s recommendation to the board, approved 8-4 with board members Angela Durham (District 1), Dan Cash (District 2), Jay Galbreath (District 6) and Sheila Cleveland (District 7) voting against.
“Given that the board put the mask requirement in place a few weeks ago, given that our numbers are slowly improving, given our experience — granted, as educators, not as medical professionals — for the purpose of our mission of serving students, it strikes me as wise to leave it in place,” Golden said. “With a balance of the opt out, we have a structure that’s stable and has been working these last few weeks.”
Galbreath shared that he wouldn’t be for extending the requirement 30 days, let alone into next year. Cleveland said that she was not in favor of the motion because, as most middle and high school students have the ability to be vaccinated and to transition to remote learning in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, she does not believe that those in secondary schools should be included in the requirement.
Back in August, shortly after the district passed a mask requirement solely at the elementary level, Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of any school mask mandate with written notice to the school. That order is still in place through Oct. 5, and WCS reported that, as of Friday, just over 32% of the student body have opted out of the requirement.
Durham asked if that 32% statistic is accurate.
“How well is the mask mandate actually being upheld? And the reason I’m asking this is because there’s not a lot of capability truly to control this when you’re in the building,” Durham said, adding that she doesn’t believe that only 32% of students aren’t wearing masks but that it’s closer to 70% or 80%.
Golden said while masks are not required for outdoor activities and there are sometimes challenges managing the requirement inside the classroom, “the numbers are more consistent with what we are seeing practically.” Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools Leigh Webb echoed some of this.
“I will be honest and share with you it is a challenge at the secondary level to manage the mask mandate,” Webb said. “We can’t monitor it every second that the students are in the building, but I will say that our schools are doing to the best of their ability to check to ensure. We certainly have more students now [wearing masks] than when we didn’t have the requirement.”
Golden reiterated that COVID-19 is unpredictable, sharing that if case numbers drop significantly, it’s possible staff could recommend elimination of the mask requirement sooner rather than later.
“Again, it’s just unknown,” Golden said.
WCS achievement highlighted
Also during the meeting, WCS acknowledged the 24 rewards schools this year: Bethesda Elementary, Brentwood High, Brentwood Middle, Clovercroft Elementary, College Grove Elementary, Crockett Elementary, Franklin High, Grassland Elementary, Heritage Middle, Hunters Bend Elementary, Jordan Elementary, Kenrose Elementary, Lipscomb Elementary, Longview Elementary, Nolensville Elementary, Oak View Elementary, Pearre Creek Elementary, Ravenwood High, Renaissance High, Sunset Middle, Thompson's Station Elementary, Walnut Grove Elementary, Westwood Elementary and Winstead Elementary.
These schools are 24 out of 188 statewide, giving WCS the highest number of rewards schools in the state this year.
Golden also acknowledged the district’s 72 national merit scholar semifinalists.
Community discusses LGBTQ-related student clubs
During the public comment section of the meeting, 16 of 29 speakers spoke in support of LGBTQ-related student clubs on campus while five spoke in opposition to the groups.
This discussion arose after the student-led Gay-Straight Alliance at Independence High School had a homecoming float representing the group, and some parents felt it was inappropriate for a school setting. The float sparked the Williamson County chapter of Moms For Liberty, a group that has recently expressed concerns about critical race theory and the elementary English language arts curriculum Wit & Wisdom, to post about the incident on social media and invite people from its group to speak about it at the school board meeting.
“Do we believe in the parents’ right to determine when their child is exposed to issues of politics, issues of identity, of sexuality? We don’t all agree on these things, right? So, what I would say is let’s keep this stuff out of the classroom,” said Brett Craig, a WCS parent and member of Moms For Liberty. “We don’t have to fight; let’s just leave the stuff in the house where parents make the decision and get back to teaching and doing school, and I promise everybody’s going to like each other again.”
Several members of the GSA club at Independence and at other WCS high schools spoke to the issue in addition to parents and other members of the community, saying that groups like this create important safe and supportive spaces for members and allies of the LGBTQ community.
One member of Centennial High’s GSA club, sophomore Nick, said the club provides support for students that sometimes isn’t found at home, citing statistics from youth.gov, such as 43% of youth experiencing homelessness were forced from their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and 30% of youth reported physical abuse from a family member after coming out as LGBTQ.
“This group has done wonders for me — not only for me, but for the other people in it,” he said. “These students need a safe place to go. Not many of them feel safe or supported at home, so they come to this club to feel welcome and accepted. We come to school not only to learn but feel supported by a community, and this club has don’t nothing but build said community.”
Ahead of the meeting, Franklin Pride and the Williamson Social Justice Alliance released statements in support of these groups.
Golden shared that all students have the opportunity to create and participate in student-led groups, and the district does not “make content decisions on student-led clubs” but “allow students to develop what they need and what they value.”
“It’s about making sure that all our students feel safe, and we have work to do,” Golden said.
The WCS school board will hold its next meeting on Monday, Oct. 18, at 6:30 p.m. at the Williamson County Administrative Complex.
For more information, visit www.WCS.edu.