On Monday, the Mountain Brooks School Board heard complaints from parents who object to the requirement that all students be masked for the 2021-2022 school year. A delegation of concerned parents voiced their concerns about the board’s mask mandate and asked that it be rescinded.
Mountain Brooks Schools Superintendent Dickey Barlow explained to the Board: “On July 30, we received guidance from the State of Alabama that we require masks and socially distance. We received the same recommendation from the Jefferson County Health Department.”
Barlow said that they had originally wanted to open the school year, “As normal as possible.”
“Our goal was to start the school year without masks,” he said, but due to the surge in cases of the Delta variant of COVID-19, which has already struck Mountain Brook students and teachers, the decision has been made to continue moving forward with the mask requirement.
A number of parents expressed their dissatisfaction with that decision and said that that decision should be left to the parents of the children. Other parents spoke in favor of Barlow’s decision to require that all the children be masked.
Allison Hyde said: “I was grateful when Dr. Barlow announced the mask optional policy (the BOE later reversed that policy). No board of education should be in the business of making public health decisions for other people.”
Hyde said that the new policy was “overreaching, without merit and unacceptable.”
“Parents are responsible for their own research,” Hyde said. If parents choose to send their kids to school in masks, “That is their prerogative.”
Hyde said that if parents determine that masking is not best for their children, then the board should honor their decision not impose “your one-size-fits-all mask policy.”
“We continue to have conversations with the people from the Department of Public Health,” Barlow said. “Since July 31, our focus has been on the start of school.”
Physicians spoke in favor of the mask mandate.
Dr. Peter Pappas, who is a physician at UAB’s infectious disease unit, said: “I am here to support your position.”
Pappas compared COVID-19 to tuberculosis.
“This reminds me of TB,” Pappas said. “If you have TB and don’t take your meds” you can lose your freedom. “This is a situation where public health trumps individual choice.”
Pappas said that he supports requiring masking. Pappas said that there are three tools for fighting COVID-19: “Vaccinations being the most important. social distancing and masks.”
“In real practice, masks work,” Pappas said. “There was one child death of influenza, there are normally 200. There will be 500 from COVID. This is prima fascia evidence that masks work.”
Dr. Leland Allen III also spoke in favor of the mandatory masking rule.
“I am an infectious disease physician,” Allen said. “I want to applaud all of you for making a brave decision to follow CDC guidance. You all were able to pivot and do what is right for students.”
“We have seen a rise in COVID cases due to the new Delta variant.” Allen said. “We have seen more and more children infected with it.”
“My wife had COVID a year ago and she still can’t smell,” llen continued. “Children can be affected by this.”
“Masks are not harmful to students,” Allen said. “Surgeons wear masks all the time. We have worn them since medical school. They work. We know the benefits of masks. There are no drawbacks.”
There were doctors on both sides of the debate.
Dr. Jordan Vaughn spoke at length about his opposition to the mask mandate and how there is, in his opinion, insufficient research into the long term effects of masking school children for anyone to mandate that children be masked 9 hours a day, five days a week for potentially an entire school year.
“As a frontline physician, a researcher, a business owner, a mid-size employer and most importantly a father I am concerned with the decision this school system is making by mandating our children be masked during their education,” Vaughn told the board. “Our public health establishment has failed this country, this state, and the physicians that are tasked with treating and informing patients and most egregiously failed our most precious asset, our children. It was understandable a few months into this to be reticent and fearful, but now more than 18 months later continuing to rule with fear is inexcusable; especially in our supposed leaders.”
“The state and county even left you, a school board of education, with the unenviable task of making a complex medical decision with minimal supportive data while they stoke fear in the parents and children you represent. I would never expect a patient, employee, or even my own son to make such a difficult decision without proper education or guidance, especially if I was abdicating this responsibility because it was too difficult to make the decision myself,” Vaughn continued. “Regarding masks, surprising to many but not to medical professional, they have been researched and debated since the onset of modern disease theory.”
“There is no reliable and controlled data in favor of masking to prevent aerosolized viral respiratory pathogen spread for the past 100 years; this is not for lack of trying by many well- meaning physicians and researchers,” Vaughn continued. “It has been tried repeatedly and failed repeatedly; even when under the strictest protocols and utilized by competent medical professionals that data is silent on any benefit. It is true that most of this data is from adult and hospitalized populations and does not address children directly, but often the lack of trials in a certain populations like children speaks loudly for why it has not been assessed.”
“The real reason is that a trial of masking children would be considered unethical by any institutional review board,” Vaughn stated. “In fact, I would be hard pressed to find an institutional review board to approve a randomized control trial of masking during school in a pediatric population, mainly because of the unknown and unrealized harm caused by such an intervention to a child’s development and emotional state. I ask this board, if an IRB can’t study it because it is unethical, maybe it is unethical? Do you have data on the consequences of masking a child for 18 months during childhood development and education?”
A number of parents brought up a controversial diversity program that the board and Barlow had implements with the Anti-Defamation League.
Sam Henderson said: “You forced through a diversity program”.
Henderson referred to the ADL as a “dangerous organization” and decried a “lack of transparency” in how the BOE was conducting its business.
“Mountain Brook needs to be the best that it can be,” Henderson continued. “We need open communication with the citizens of Mountain Brook.”
“Teach our teachers to never bring their political biases to school grounds,” Henderson said.
The Mountain Brook BOE will consider the testimony and evidence and make a decision on whether to continue with the mandatory masking or not in the coming weeks.
This is an issue across the state as Delta variant cases of COVID-19 continue to climb.