After a letter outlining Enterprise City School’s return to school plan, intended for faculty and staff, was released on social media last week, parents and families of ECS students flooded the meeting room at Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting to protest the mask requirement and to ask for it to be reconsidered.
Citing the low mortality and transmission rates in children, many parents called the decision “cruel” and a “punishment” for the low vaccine rating in the county at present.
“As a mother of five children in the school system, I was extremely disappointed, especially considering the very low rates of infections and complications in children,” Amber Salmon said. “Let’s be sure we’re not punishing our children for adults choosing not to get vaccinated when there is widespread availability throughout our city. My elementary school children do not need to be forced to wear masks, and they do not need to be forced to get a vaccine. Why do we have an obsession with masking healthy children and forcing them to social distance? It is not natural, and in fact it is very cruel.”
Steve Salmon said he was there to encourage that the choice be left up to each individual family and called into question past recommendations from the medical community we now know to be harmful.
“If your mandate is based on keeping my child safe today, what do you plan to do when my child gets sick tomorrow? Why are you ignoring the undeniable truth and evidence that shows what has happened to kids and adults alike that have worn masks for long periods of time?” he said. “I question whether you’re going to have to address this term I just learned about called “maskne,” which is the acne you get from the masks.
“We’ve had quite a few things that were thought to be good ideas in the beginning, for various reasons: cigarettes, mercury-filled light bulbs, asbestos, weight loss pills, heroine was used as a medicine, Agent Orange was supposed to just kill the vegetation, vaping, wooden playground equipment, Round Up. I’m here to remind you that it should be a choice, not a mandate. I’m here to remind you that this choice—what’s best for my child—belongs to me.”
Speaking to board members directly, Les Hogan added, “Each of you in your professional careers provide a choice to your professional consumers; however, when it comes to our school system, it seems that we’re being dictated to and mandated with little to no scientific evidence to prove masks’ effectiveness. Are we going to sit here and become conformists, or will we be leaders? I think these decisions are based on laziness and a lack of insight into what’s going on. I see conformity instead of leadership. There should never be a mandate, but a choice.”
Superintendent Dr. Zel Thomas, supported by Dr. Beverly Jordan, family medicine and sports medicine provider at Professional Medical Associates, Dr. Nola Jean Ernest, neurobiologist, pediatrician and family medicine provider at Enterprise Pediatric Clinic, and Dr. Daniel Whitaker, pediatrician at Enterprise Medical Clinic, said the reason for the mandate is because of the rapid increase in cases over the last two weeks.
“We are very high risk in Coffee County. This is not intended to be all year, this is just until things subside,” Thomas said. “In June, we weren’t thinking about this. About two weeks ago, it started getting on my radar but I was hoping things would change, and they had. For the worse. We’re trying to keep your babies in school so we can do our jobs.”
Jordan added that the county’s case numbers are back up to where they were at the peak from December through February. With the Delta variant proving to be more contagious than the original strain, and a shift in the age range of sick patients trending younger, students wearing masks will allow for less students to be sent home to quarantine.
“This time last year, only 2 percent of our cases were children under the age of 18. Right now, that number is actually 20 percent,” she said. “Our seven-day average case rate for COVID in Coffee County is 28 and rising. It was one three weeks ago. Right now, we have 10 patients in the hospital with COVID. Three weeks ago, we had none. We were happy to not be doing this and hoped that this would not happen. But, Delta variant has changed the situation.”
Ernest said she typically sees anywhere from 30-50 patients during her three-hour Sunday clinic, but the count increased this past Sunday to 87 with 21 school-aged patients testing positive for COVID, which is four people greater than the 20 percent average.
“Those were the ones whose tests we got back immediately, not the ones who are still waiting,” she said. “We only send tests on children that we have a suspicion have COVID—we don’t send a test on someone just because. These are children that came to us sick.”
Last year, over 1,500 students were sent home to quarantine and missed a collective 15,290 days of instruction. Jordan said their goal with this recommendation was to keep as many kids in school for as long as possible.
“Someone stated earlier, to much applause, that the job of the school board is to provide an education for our children, and they couldn’t be more correct. We parents all agree that in-person school is far superior to virtual, that’s why we send our students to Enterprise City Schools,” she said. “I feel that this decision to follow the recommendation of the CDC and ADPH is doing just that, allowing our students to remain in school. I’m not here to promote fear; I’m here to provide education on the current situation in our community.”
Acknowledging that masking is not a perfect solution, Jordan said it was just one part of a broader strategy that includes social distancing, cleaning and vaccinating for those who are eligible. However, in order for masks to work, both people have to participate.
“To say that you can allow people who want to mask to wear a mask and that protects them entirely from everyone else is clearly false, and we know that. A small group situation is not the same as a large group situation,” she said. “Close contacts will be required to quarantine if both parties are not masked and are closer than three feet from one another, so if we violate those priorities, then we will have to quarantine and send students home. I would really like to be able to keep our students in school, and doing the things it takes to mitigate the chance that a child gets quarantined is how we do that.”
Don Raby, who is new to Enterprise after living in Michigan, said the masks would not make COVID go away and that they were ineffective at best because of the particle size of the virus.
“The particle size of the virus is about a thousand times smaller than the pores in masks. Masks are made to catch spit, to catch someone sneezing, to catch those viruses coming out of the body. It’s not made to keep them from going in the body,” he said.
Jordan later responded, “Data has been quoted about viral particle size and the fact that masks are made to catch spit, and you couldn’t be more correct. Viral particles don’t float around alone in the air, they float in spit, so when a mask catches the spit, that’s how it catches the viral particle.”
Raby also cited a study of six children’s face masks performed in Gainesville, Fla. in June that discovered the existence of bacteria, parasites and fungi, including three with dangerous pathogens and pneumonia-causing bacteria. Raby said no viruses were detected on the masks, although the tests were capable of detecting viruses.
Ernest said those are normal bacteria and pathogens one would expect to be found in a child’s system and that doctors have not seen an increase in the rates of meningitis or pneumonia because of mask wearing.
“The bacteria and pathogens that are found on masks would be expected to be found on masks. If I were to swab any child’s nose and checked for bacteria pathogens, they have pathogens all the time that are known to cause meningitis and pneumonia and serious illnesses,” she said. “Those are normal respiratory bacteria that, in the wrong circumstances, can cause illnesses, so any mask that’s going to trap your spit and secretions is going to have those pathogens in it. That is normal, and it has not been shown to increase rates of meningitis or pneumonia.”
Whitaker supported Ernest’s claim and added that his office had actually seen a reduction in the number of cases of RSV, flu, stomach virus, strep throat and others over the winter months when masks were still mandated by Gov. Kay Ivey.
“Once the mask mandate got lifted in Alabama and everyone starting doing their normal stuff… your kids started getting sick. Within a couple of weeks, we started seeing RSV,” he said. “RSV is a winter virus, and we normally see it November to January. We didn’t see it this winter. It was nonexistent. The state lifted the mask mandate, and we started seeing RSV in April, May and June. Admitting babies to the hospital with RSV like we normally do. Adults spread germs, and most of you think it’s your allergies. Masks work, and I’ve seen it this year.”
Parent Katie Padgett said she wanted school to reopen with no restrictions, stating that because Enterprise has not been locked down over the summer, kids returning to school “is not a big experiment into what will happen if people go out into the public without a mask.”
“While cases in Coffee County and across the country have gone up the past few weeks, kids overall have very little risk for serious complications. There is some risk; however, there is still some risk in all illnesses, of getting in a car accident, of drowning, etcetera,” she said. “I want to meet my kids’ teachers. I want my kids to be able to interact with their classmates in a normal manner. I want them to be able to eat lunch in the cafeteria and talk with their classmates instead of remaining in the classrooms and quietly staring at a screen. I want to volunteer in the school and occasionally have lunch with my children. I want them to go to the school library and to go on field trips.”
Ernest refuted that if no precautions are taken, it would take just two months at the current transmission rate, and taking Delta into consideration, for every student in Enterprise City Schools to contract COVID-19.
“If we do nothing, if we don’t quarantine our children, if we don’t mask them, if we don’t vaccinate and we go back to school as normal, it will be two months before every single child in Enterprise City Schools has COVID,” Ernest said. “If every child in Enterprise City Schools has COVID, based on the current data, we know that approximately 70 of them will probably be hospitalized. We know that if every single child in Enterprise City Schools gets COVID, at least one of them will be at risk of death.”
Terri Waythomas and many of the other parents said masks caused their children to feel anxious, have shortness of breath, headaches and dizziness and deprived their brains of oxygen.
“To deprive a child or an adolescent’s brain of oxygen or to restrict it in any way is not only dangerous to their health, it is absolutely criminal,” she said. “Oxygen deficiency inhibits the development of the brain, and the damage that has taken place as a result cannot be reversed.”
Ernest referenced a study that was released just this week that show COVID “long haul” symptoms include a decrease in IQ and said multiple studies have shown that masks do not impair gas exchange.
“It does not decrease oxygen levels and it does not increase your blood carbon dioxide levels. But COVID does,” she said. “If you get COVID and you have pneumonia from COVID, it will impair your gas exchange, and that is what leads to long term brain consequences.”
Other parent concerns included decreased social interactions and the ability to learn how to properly interact with others, difficulty communicating and adequately learning phonics, reading and speech, and disadvantaging students with learning disabilities or hearing impairments.
“I have a friend who has a child on the Autism spectrum, and she’s said that if the mandate goes through she will have to keep her son home because he refuses to wear the mask, and there are other children, whether they are special needs or not, that don’t want to wear the mask,” Dawn Sterling Smith said. “What happens if they don’t comply and take the mask off? What punishment will be inflected on them? It makes school a very negative experience, and we don’t want to do that to children. We don’t want to disenfranchise them, especially so early on. We want them to do well in school, and we want them to have everything in their favor.”
Rachel Lee, who was in favor of some precautions, added, “Our children are learning in a disrupted environment that breeds fear, frustration and contention. No amount of fake mask smiles or air hugs can begin to touch a child’s heart the way a real, sincere smile can. Making decisions for our kids based on fear of the ‘what if’ doesn’t teach them to be bold leaders, it instills doubt. Let us as parents, support staff and teachers make the best choice for our own health and freedom, a choice that was paid for by the same military families you’re stealing freedom from.”
Thomas said no one was trying to take away their rights, they are simply trying to keep their children safe and schools open.
“Over the last year and a half, they’ve lost a lot of face time. I think you all agree face to face instruction is where it is at, and that is what we’re trying to adhere to,” he said. “Do you really think that the first big fight I’d want to fight would be this one? I just got my contract approved, but I’m making that recommendation for the benefit of the children that we serve and take care of. It is our responsibility to keep your children safe. That is our number one. Our primary objective beyond educating them is to keep them safe.”
Tanner Medley said the board’s only job was to provide children with an education and it should have no say in families’ personal medical decisions unless the board wanted to be held liable in court for any repercussions of this decision.
“You say you’re here to make the best decisions for our children, but that’s not your job. Since you want to be the monolithic decision-making body for our children’s health, then guess what? You’re the monolithic recipient of all the legal liability that is incurred with that,” he said. “If you want to tell us what to do and you want to make the decisions, then you are liable for that, and you will be litigated by all these people when their children are affected by your mandate.
“If you want to force masks on kids, you are legally liable for the implications and everything that comes with that. If you’re not liable for the decisions you make, you should not have the authority to make those decisions. What I will not stand for is unelected bureaucrats coming in and making decisions for my kid’s health.”
Medley was not the only parent to raise concern about the board itself. Waythomas added, “I think that parents in this school system deserve the right to have elected representatives in this school district and not people who have been placed by the city council. I object to my children being used as medical guinea pigs, especially when the risk of asymptomatic transmission is low. It is irresponsible for this board and superintendent to force children to wear masks. This mandate is government tyranny, and I will not go down without a fight.”
Raby continued, “A lot of people are appalled that none of you are elected or truly representative of the people in this room. That’s appalling to me because I thought we lived in a republic. I thought we lived in a democracy where our elected representatives serve us. The job of the school system is to educate, not indoctrinate.”
Doctors weigh in
Dr. Nola Ernest said that eight children in Alabama have died due to COVID and there have been about 4,000 hospitalizations in children due to COVID and subsequent diseases like myocarditis and Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), which is a serious complication in COVID. COVID is now also ranked ninth in the top 10 causes of death in children.
“Not COVID-pneumonia, not pneumonia with influenza emphasis, COVID is in the top 10 causes of death in children,” she said. “If we let every single child in Enterprise City Schools get COVID, 196 of our children will end up with heart damage, myocarditis, and 280 of them will likely experience ‘long-haul’ symptoms, and new studies came out this week that show those long haul symptoms include a decrease in IQ.”
Ernest said that she wanted people to understand that COVID is not a mild disease in all children and that it carries various health risks for each individual person. While quarantine and isolation will help slow the spread, they have to be part of a multilayered approach because by the time the need for quarantine is realized, it’s too late.
“The problem with quarantine and isolation is it requires you to have symptoms, it requires you to get a test, and many individuals with COVID are contagious before they ever show symptoms,” she said. “They don’t have time to quarantine before they share it with their friends. Some symptoms may be mild enough to be overlooked as a cold or an allergy—all of the teenagers I diagnosed this week came in thinking it was their allergies acting up except for the fact they had a fever.”
Dr. Daniel Whitaker said while he does want children to have the added protection of masks, not only to keep them in school but to also keep them healthy, he wants the parents to be protected most of all.
“Right now, the people that are dying are not children, thank God. Right now, we’re seeing it change a little bit in the community,” he said. “Most of the elderly have gotten their vaccine, and they’re not in the hospital right now—it’s the 30 to 50 year olds who are filling up the beds right now, which are most of the time parent-aged people.
“The only reason we want to do a mask mandate is to keep your children in school so they can learn and not be sent home every time someone beside them has COVID and to keep you from dying. Not the kids, you. People who are healthy adults who can die from COVID.”
Referencing statements comparing COVID to the flu and the lack of masks during flu season, Whitaker said COVID is worse than the flu and added that the best way to keep school open and to stop healthy kids being sent home to quarantine and missing vital instruction is to wear a mask.
“This is not the flu, it’s COVID, and it’s worse than the flu,” he said. “The flu doesn’t kill at a high rate like COVID, that’s what makes the difference. The best option we have to keep children in seats, to keep your child educated without sending them home left and right—because you’ll be complaining about that when your kid gets sent home for 14 days—is to mask the children so that they don’t give it to you if they catch it.”
Whitaker also encouraged those who are eligible to get the vaccine to take it because the majority of deaths right now are happening to unvaccinated adults under 50.
“If you have a vaccine, you’re less likely to end up in the hospital and you’re less likely to die. But right now, if you don’t have the vaccine, those people are starting to fill up the hospitals,” he said. “We’ve been trying to protect the elderly, but now they’ve gotten their vaccine and that’s why you’re not seeing them in the hospital right now. Now, there are people my age dying of COVID.”
In answering a question regarding herd immunity, Whitaker said herd immunity was unlikely to form against COVID because of the mutations.
“Herd immunity is always a debatable thing. What percentage is it, 60, 50, 75? As COVID changes, and this is where Delta variants comes in, you’re not really going to have herd immunity because it keeps changing,” he said. “One day we’re probably going to be getting the flu shot in one arm and a COVID shot in the other and they’re going to be guessing what variant of COVID is going to be going around, so I don’t think there’s ever going to be herd immunity with COVID like the flu.”
Superintendent Dr. Zel Thomas encouraged those with additional questions or concerns to contact him at his office to schedule an appointment, and Ernest also invited parents or guardians to schedule an appointment to for further discussion.
The board meeting can be viewed online on the Enterprise City School’s YouTube channel.