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Dozens attend a Putnam County school board meeting Monday night in Winfield. The board continued making the wearing of face masks optional for students and staff, unless a certain percentage of students at a school test positive for COVID-19.

The Putnam County school board will continue to make masks and face coverings optional for students and staff, unless a certain percentage of a school’s population is COVID-19 positive.

A universal mask mandate will be considered on a school-by-school basis based on the number of students who test positive for COVID-19, but the percentages vary by grade.

For high schools, 25% of the student population at a school would have to test positive in order for a mask mandate to go into effect for that school. That number drops to 15% of the student population for grades K-8. There was no discussion about preschool students.

If the specified threshold is reached, a mask mandate would go into effect for the affected school for a minimum of five days before the situation is reevaluated.

The board heard public comment for nearly an hour from individuals on both sides of the mask mandate aisle, many who were concerned with the number of students being required to quarantine despite being “perfectly healthy,” as one parent explained it.

Board member Calvin Damron II made a motion that would have implemented a 28-day universal mask mandate for Putnam County schools, and would have been revisited next month.

That motion did not receive a second and died on the floor before it was put up for vote.

Board member Christian Wells’ motion was approved unanimously by the board, leaving masks optional unless the percentage of students or staff testing positive for COVID-19 reaches the designated threshold.

It’s the third time such a discussion has taken place at a public board meeting. Putnam County is the 54th county of 55 in West Virginia to release guidance on some form of a mask mandate.

“We were working through what was proposed to us [by the West Virginia Department of Education],” board president Rob Cunningham said when asked why it took so long for board members to reach their decision. “You’d have to ask the other counties but it appears they took the order at its face value and we’ve actually worked the problem to fit best for Putnam County.”

The board did not vote on changing any quarantining guidelines, though Cunningham said he believes this version of a mask mandate will reduce “unnecessary” quarantines and keep children in classrooms.

As of Monday morning, the district’s website indicated 187 positive cases of COVID-19 had been identified, with more than 800 students in quarantine as a result.

Cunningham said the school board members felt as if they were backed into a corner since no mandate was issued at the state level, and the decision placed on county boards of education on whether to mandate masks. Cunningham said since there is no higher guidance, they are sticking with what has been recommended by the local health department.

“If the bubonic plague broke out in downtown Winfield, they aren’t calling the board of education, they are calling the health department,” Cunningham said. “This is a pandemic — that is a medical issue, and that’s why we’ve relied on our local health board, our local health officer and have followed what they said. They recommend masks and so do we.”

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