BOE incentivizes COVID vaccine and refused to take up mask mandate

Published 4:39 pm Monday, November 15, 2021

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The Sumter County Board of Education (BOE) held their regular meeting on Thursday, November 11, 2021. Two topics related to COVID-19 were presented. By a vote of 5-1, with Sylvia Roland absent from the meeting, the BOE passed Superintendent Walter Knighton’s recommendation to give all employees who could provide proof of full vaccination by December 13 a one-time bonus of $500. Objecting to the vote was Jim Reid who asked Knighton if he would be making the recommendation if the incentive money was coming from local funds. Knighton neither confirmed nor denied if he would have made the recommendation if it was using local funds. However, with CARES funding, he did feel it was an appropriate use of funds as it is designed to “mitigate the circumstances of COVID-which the vaccine does.” He also added the incentive has been budgeted and “approved by the state department before its even provided. That’s what I’m basing my decision on.” The cost of the incentives will be no more than $395,000. The only objecting vote came from Reid who stated people should “do the right thing, for the right reason at the right time.” Upon further clarification of his stance he said, there were “plenty of taxpayers and nobody was going to pay them, and I’ll be real honest with you, I think it is unethical.”

Prior to the incentive being approved by the board, Knighton had reported the weekly COVID numbers. It was established that 12 out of 4400 students and staff of the school had tested positive. Reid made an inquiry regarding the mask mandate which is in place until the end of January. The board had decided to place the mandate before school started and the mandate is for everyone on school grounds. If the mandate stays in place until the end of January, the students, staff and visitors have spent over 5 months mandated to wear while in school property. Reid made several points of consideration. First, the only 2 places in Sumter County having a mask mandate are the hospital and the school system. Georgia Southwestern as well as South Georgia Tech are not requiring masks. In looking at neighboring counties, he reports on Lee and Houston County. Reid states Houston County has 25 positive cases out of 35,000 and that equates to 7/10 of 1%. They do not have a mask mandate. Lee County has 6000 students (unknown number of employees), and they have 4 positive cases, making their positive rate be 6/10 of 1%. Lee County does not have a mask mandate and Reid reports their rate of positive cases is lower than Sumter County Schools (SCS). In addition to the math, he made several other facts to include the problems masks present such as missing out on important facial expressions, how they are particularly hard on people who wear glasses, and the exhaustion of having to strain to be understood. He also relayed he believes the masks do little more than “provide a false sense of security unless they are N95.”  Reid went further to add, “I don’t think we should use our position to keep making everybody miserable all day long. Now if somebody wants to wear the mask that’s their privilege but we should not make everybody miserable.” Chairman Rick Barnes asked what the rate would have to be for Knighton to recommend SCS roll back the mask mandate. Knighton stated it needed to be within 2-5%. With a little math, it was determined by Reid our rate is well below 2%. At this point Carolyn Hamilton asked the discussion be dropped as the BOE had voted to make the mandate effective until the end of January. Barnes, however, remembers it differently. He remembers the mandate being fluid to reflect the need at the time. He remarked if COVID were to disappear, as well as become a larger threat that the BOE surely would not have locked themselves into following a blanket policy which did not take into account the ever-changing status of the virus’ spread. Hamilton stood firm on the item not coming up until the end of January and had no response to Barnes’ thoughts that the BOE would in fact be taking into account the numbers in real time. In the end Barnes acquiesced to Hamilton and Reid was allowed to put the subject on the agenda for December.

In other news, Knighton reports our final graduation rate for last academic year is 92.3%. He reports this is fourth in the region and of schools with over 100 students, SCS is the highest. Georgia’s rate is 83.7%. This report focused on last year’s success while reports from this year were discussed earlier in the week. The most recent testing is reporting a significant drop in performance, with some metrics showing only a minority of tested students rating “proficient” in the area measured.  A proficient rating indicates students are on grade level. Principals laid out their plans to mitigate this loss to the BOE at the agenda setting meeting.

On voting items, the BOE accepted the financial reports, which included an amended 2022 balanced budget, approved spending approximately $487,000 grant funding on technology equipment, and spending about $110,000 on a new bus. After executive session, the personnel committee made recommendations which were approved.

The next meeting of the BOE is December 6 at 6pm to set the agenda for the regular meeting held on December 9 at 7pm. Meetings can be seen live or in archived videos on Facebook at the SCS page entitled, Sumter County Schools. Additionally, parents and caregivers are encouraged to give their opinion regarding face to face or virtual learning to the school by December 3, 2021. If you need assistance finding the survey or are unable to access, please call the office at 229.931.8500.