Mask mandate being considered by mostly unmasked Ardmore school board

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite
Cyclists ride past the Ardmore City Schools administration offices.

During a well-attended meeting of the Ardmore board of education on Tuesday, school nurses from across the district petitioned the board to consider a mask mandate. While school officials say they believe a mandate can be implemented with an opt-out provision, no action was taken while data about the disease on campus continues to be gathered. 

“Please consider making mask mandates in Ardmore City Schools an option,” high school nurse Renita Dotson told board members. “What we ask is that you consider that we use all tools that we have in our arsenal to keep our kids and our staff safe and keep our schools open. We can do this but we have to use everything we have.” 

Of the roughly 25 people in attendance, Dotson and three others in the meeting were seen wearing a mask over their noses and mouths, including two high school teachers and school board member Carey Baldwin. The sight of few masks in use during the meeting was something noted by Assistant Superintendent Jill Day. 

“I don’t have a problem with a mask mandate, I also don’t have a mask on right now. I’m one of those,” said Day. 

The school has been gathering COVID-19 data from across the district’s six campuses and discovered 98 students and 11 staff members have tested positive for the disease this year. Day said about 3.6% of the overall student body has tested positive for the disease this year, with the middle and high schools each recording around 4.5% of their respective student bodies testing positive.  

The rate of infections recorded among Ardmore students since the first day of the academic year on Aug. 12 is significantly higher than the overall county rate in that time. The Oklahoma State Department of Health has recorded 1,146 new cases of COVID-19 in Carter County since Aug. 11, representing about 2.4% of the county’s population. 

Day said the infection rate among students at Lincoln Elementary School has reached 4.8%, twice the county infection rate, while the 11 teachers district-wide that have tested positive for COVID-19 represent 2.4% of all teachers. 

During the discussion, board member Harry Spring asked if any Ardmore students or teachers have died due to COVID-19 and Day responded “no.” Carter County has recorded at least 141 deaths linked to COVID-19 and the state health department has recorded four Oklahoma children between 12 and 17 years old have died due to COVID-19. 

Spring, who was among those without a mask on Tuesday, was also seen and heard coughing repeatedly into his hand throughout the meeting. Messages left on Wednesday morning for Spring and Day were unanswered by press time. Baldwin responded on Wednesday evening but declined to comment.

Board members on Tuesday were also presented with the results of a survey conducted to better gauge the response from parents and teachers regarding a mask mandate. Day said only about 17% of parents and 53% of staff even responded to the survey that showed narrow margins of support for a mask mandate. The district also estimates only about 14% of students and 4% of staff are regularly wearing masks at school. 

“While that has kind of thrown us for a loop on what we want to do, we have to remember that all students and staff alike are free to wear a mask at all times if they choose. No one is stopping them from it,” Day said. “Even with a mask mandate, students and staff can opt-out.” 

Mask mandates at public schools in Oklahoma have prompted legislative actions and legal challenges since the summer. Gov. Kevin Stitt in May approved Senate Bill 658 to block school districts from implementing mask mandates without an emergency declaration. That law was quickly challenged and blocked by a judge earlier this month. As a result, some school districts in the state are now implementing mask mandates with the ability to opt-out for personal, religious or health reasons. 

The Ardmore school district is also working to compile data on COVID-19 vaccination rates across the district. Day said the district’s legal counsel has indicated that asking for the vaccination status of employees would not violate medical privacy laws. Students cannot be asked about their COVID-19 vaccination status, but Day said that information can still be gathered for analysis. 

Updated to include a response from board member Carey Baldwin