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Masks in schools?

BESE officials debating state’s mandate today
Wednesday, August 18, 2021
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Update: quotes from Superintendent Ricky Durrett that didn't make the print version of the story have been added — Aug. 18, 7 a.m.

Today Louisiana’s top school board is scheduled to debate whether or not it will push back against Gov. John Bel Edwards’ mask mandate and allow individual school districts to set their own COVID-19 mitigation policies.

The last item on the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s meeting agenda, which begins at 9 a.m. today, is consideration of a recent opinion issued by Attorney General Jeff Landry, who claims that it’s BESE, not the governor, who holds the power to adopt safety protocols for schools.

School starts Thursday in Lincoln Parish. Superintendent Ricky Durrett had originally planned to recommend — not require — masks for employees and students third grade and older this school year. But at the beginning of August Edwards reinstated a mask mandate for ages 5 and up in response to a new surge of COVID cases and hospitalizations caused by the more virulent Delta variant.

While not specifically spelled out in the mandate, the governor’s office has maintained that it applies to school districts, so Lincoln Parish and others made the switch back to requiring masks indoors, much like last school year.

Durrett said Tuesday he doesn't yet know whether Lincoln Parish schools would drop the mask mandate if BESE decides to leave it up to each district.

"We're not sure what it would mean if the governor's telling us one thing and BESE another," he said. "We'd have to get our attorneys together."

He said the main reason for reinstituting masks in the local schools was because of the governor's mandate, but the district also wants to consider the advice of regional doctors and pediatricians.

"Yeah we're following the governor, but we're also trying to listen to our local health officials to do what's safest for our kids," Durrett said. "They're telling us to wear masks, too. They think that's the safest thing right now."

On Monday, 63 Republican members of the state House of Representatives sent a letter asking BESE to allow each school district the opportunity to set its own COVID guidelines. Rep. Chris Turner, R-Ruston, was among the signees.

The lawmakers claim in the letter that they are writing “on behalf of frustrated parents, grandparents and guardians across the state” who want BESE to consider the “constitutional rights of students.”

Some other school districts across the state have seen protests against the mask mandate, including a St. Tammany Parish School Board meeting swarmed by hundreds of residents hoping to convince the board to make masks optional for students.

As of Tuesday morning, Louisiana led the country in new COVID deaths per capita and was second in new cases per capita behind Florida.