BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Schools would keep the mask mandate in schools through the end of the school year, under a recommendation unveiled on Thursday by Director of Schools David Cox.

However, the recommendation in a county still in the “red” for COVID-19 infections — as graduations are set for May 13 and 14 and the school year ends May 20 — drew mixed reviews from four Board of Education members at a work session Thursday, a glimpse of how the issue is headed toward a split vote on the matter at the 6:30 p.m. school board meeting on Tuesday.

One thing is certain: The current mandate will continue at least through Tuesday, the earliest the school board could vote to remove it. Since the board has seven members, four would have to vote to end the mask mandate or it would remain. Thursday’s meeting was a non-voting work session.

MEMBERS MIXED ON MASKS

“I’m ready for this to end,” board member Michael Hughes said during the work session. “I would like to rescind the protocol for reopening.” He was talking about the board’s Nov. 11 vote on how the system was to reopen, including the wearing of masks.

“I don’t know if I’m for or against masks,” member Paul Robinson said, although he said another two weeks of masks won’t hurt anyone and could keep someone from getting COVID-19. “I would support finishing out the year with masks.”

Board member Mark Ireson, however, sided with Hughes’ point of view.

“I’m not for the masks (mandate) at all. I think we need to go ahead and drop them,” Ireson said. “Kids can still wear them. Teachers can still wear them.”

So did Chairman Randall Jones.

“I’m of the opinion it needs to be optional,” Jones said. “Everyone needs to vote your conscience.”

Cox presented the board with information from various sources, including a recommendation from Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable that the school system not continue the mask mandate. Venable, who heads one of six counties in the state with a stand-alone health department, is letting a countywide mandate expire on Friday.

Gov. Bill Lee in Executive Order 80 ended the authority of 89 counties to have mask mandates and called on the other six counties to end their mask mandates. Lee said it is time for the state to get back to normal, although Cox said the Tennessee Department of Health supports Centers for Disease Control guidance on keeping masks in school until the end of the school year.

However, school systems’ mask mandates remain a local school board decision, Cox said. He recommended the system “stay the course for the remainder of the three weeks” because, among other things, no vaccine is approved for use in those younger than 16.

In addition, he pointed out that data from the Sullivan County Regional Health Department shows Sullivan County is at a 13.6% COVID infection rate, the red zone, compared to a statewide average of 5.5%. He also said an easier-to-spread COVID-19 variant infects 13% of those exposed compared to up to 3% of those exposed to the original virus.

Cox said a survey of system principals found 57.9% wanted to end the mandate but 42.1% wanted to keep it. Cox said the mask mandate support was strong among elementary principals, mixed for middle schools ones and weak among high school ones.

WHO WORE MASKS THURSDAY?

Among those sitting at the meeting, held for the first time since February in the regular board meeting room at the central office in Blountville, mask use was split.

Members Ireson, Mary Rouse, Hughes, Jones, Randall Gilmore and board attorney Pat Hull did not wear masks during the meeting, while Cox and members Robinson and Matthew Spivey did.

“We were just put in a terrible position without any forewarning,” Cox said of Lee’s announcement.

Cox said the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents has disseminated advice from attorney Chuck Cagle recommending school boards take action on a month-to-month basis. Also, he said the Tennessee School Boards Association is doing a constantly updated survey on how more than 130 public school districts statewide are handling the matter.