Lexington High School

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include other topics of discussion during Wednesday's board meeting.

LEXINGTON -- Lexington Local Schools will reinstate an indoor mask requirement for students, faculty and staff upon its return to classes on Sept. 20.

The school board voted 3-2 on Wednesday evening to reinstate the requirement. Board President Robert Whitney, Vice President Keith Stoner and board member Dave Roberts voted in favor of the motion. Board members Martin Gottschling and Rob Schuster voted against it.

The vote came after more than two hours of public comments, both in favor and against the masks.

Supt. Jeremy Secrist spoke at length about the impact of COVID-19 on the district’s first few weeks of school, then recommended changing the district’s mask-optional policy.

This audio was recorded during a Lexington Local Schools board of education meeting on Sept. 15.

He told board members he believed a mask requirement would be necessary to keep safe staffing levels and maintain in-person learning.

“My goal at the beginning of this year was to create as close to normal for our children as possible. That experiment failed,” he said. “Last year, through our mitigation strategies, over the course of nine months, we had 155 positive tests. In three weeks, we had 113 and it shut us down.”

During those three weeks, the school nursing staff contact traced 551 students. Secrist said the district notified Richland Public Health of each contact, but parents often found out days after the exposure. In the meantime, they continued sending students to school -- sometimes even if they were sick.

Last school year, 56 total staff members at Lexington were infected with COVID-19. During the first three weeks of this school year, 28 staff members tested positive. It created a staffing shortage. Administrators were driving buses, serving lunches and covering classrooms.

“We had classrooms that weren't covered, so we doubled them up while we knew that there was spread in the classrooms and we were heading to a bad place,” Secrist said. “I know that people were upset that I closed the school and went to remote learning, but we didn't have the staff to properly and appropriately take care of our children.”

Lexington Local Schools transitioned to remote learning on Sept. 7 due to high levels of illness and absences related to COVID-19.

Secrist said the district has improved its remote learning capabilities since the onset of the pandemic, but it’s still not ideal for parents and families. Parents have strained to balance work and helping their children. Grandparents raising children have struggled to understand virtual learning technology.

Students with disabilities often have a hard time with remote learning. Some kids don’t even log in.

“There are kids over the last two weeks that we are very concerned about because we reached out and we’ve reached out and we’ve reached out and I don't think they got anything out of these two weeks,” Secrist stated.

Secrist said if case rates remain the same after the mask policy is implemented, he’d be happy to reconsider the policy.

“I'll be the first person to go ‘you know what, they don't work, let's come up with something else,” he said. “But we need to try everything we can try first before we go back to remote learning and put those kids and those parents in those situations.”

After Secrist spoke, Whitney stated he agreed that reinstating the mask requirement was in the best interest of students.

“We have to do what we think is the best thing to do to get the schools open and the children back in the classes,” Whitney said. “I personally think we need to have all those youngsters in the classroom wearing masks.

“We need to keep our youngsters in school, keep them healthy. That's our responsibility and I think we need to live up to that,” he added. “Hopefully it won’t last the rest of the school year.”

While discussing the exact language of the policy change, Schuster asked about parameters -- specifically the length of time the policy would be in place.

Stoner suggested making the policy subject to review at every board meeting. He later included that in the motion to return to in-person learning with masks required for all students, faculty and staff while in indoor spaces throughout the district. 

Roberts seconded the motion.

After the change passed, audience members asked about medical exemptions. Secrist said medical exemptions in place last year and would be this year.

In response to another question from the public, board members confirmed that the policy will likely apply to spectators during indoor sports games.

Another audience member asked if individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies would be required to wear a mask.

Whitney indicated that there would not be an exception for antibodies at this time.

“I think we need to number one, get classes, get the school open, get the children back in school with masks. Everybody in the school system has to wear a mask,” he said. “We can discuss that later on.”

While many of the comments made during public participation pertained to the district’s mask policy, three families addressed the board expressing concerns about racism their children had experienced in school.

One mother stated that her child had experienced racism “non-stop” since transferring to the district in elementary school. At one point, the family even considered enrolling her in a different district.

Another parent said their child frequently hears racial slurs in the hallways and locker rooms.

The parents also said that staff members have failed to properly intervene during these incidents. 

Each board member addressed the families during the meeting, either to ask questions, apologize or commit to making a change.

“This is a place where we’re trying to develop our future leaders and it matters,” Stoner said, addressing the parents. “I appreciate you coming forward because I did not know that this was an ongoing situation.”

Schuster also thanked the families for coming forward.

“I'm sorry that's happened,” he said. “We're going to do our best for you guys to be able to come here, be able to go to school, handle your business and go home without having to deal with that garbage, because that’s what it is.”

Secrist said he and other superintendents in the area have noticed an increase in cruel speech over the last five or six years.

“It's always been here, but it is our responsibility to find a way to beat it back,” he said. “Because the ease at which it comes out is disgusting."

The board ultimately passed a motion to develop a program that would fight discrimination in the district and provide training for all district employees.

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Staff reporter focused on education and features. Clear Fork alumna. Always looking for a chance to practice my Spanish. You can reach me at katie.ellington@richlandsource.com