The Rutherford County School Board voted 4-3 to allow its employees to opt-out of the school district’s mask requirement policy, which will remain in place until the county’s average weekly positivity rate reaches 10% or lower for three consecutive weeks.

Board member Claire Maxwell made the motion to amend Vice Chair Sheila Bratton’s guidelines that were originally approved to go into effect on Monday, Sept. 13.

“I feel bad that they’ve not been able to take part in the opt-out, and I really feel strongly that we should at least vote on allowing them to have an opt-out as well,” Maxwell said. “I think things are going to trend very much in our favor over the next couple of weeks.”

RCS spokesperson James Evans provided updated COVID-19 case counts and quarantine numbers for the school week following fall break.

As of Thursday, Oct. 14, there were 69 student cases and 10 employee cases.

Students saw the most significant difference in case numbers. Two weeks ago, the school system had recorded 109 positive student cases, which has since dropped by almost 37%. Employee cases saw a less severe, three-case drop.

Quarantines for the week were recorded at 392 for students and 16 for employees. During the week leading up to fall break, the number of students quarantining (1,599) was more than four times higher than Thursday night’s number. Employee quarantines dropped by about 81.6% over the same period of time.

Maxwell’s motion was seconded by Chairwoman Tiffany Johnson after nearly 30 seconds of silence. In a roll-call vote, the amendment narrowly passed with board members Jim Estes, Lisa Moore and Tammy Sharp voting no.

Moore, who served her last school board meeting that night, said that her vote was not in opposition to the employees having the right to opt-out but to the mask policy being approved in general. Sharp said her decision reflected that reasoning as well.

The school board’s Zone 3 vacancy from Moore’s resignation was announced by the county commission at its meeting Thursday night. A new member will be selected to serve in the position until the general election next August.

Per Gov. Bill Lee’s executive orders, the district will continue to allow parents to opt out of requiring their children to wear masks at school.

Evans said that as of last Thursday, 13% of the district’s 49,039 students had elected to opt-out.

As of Thursday, Oct.14, the county’s average seven-day average positivity rate was 10.9%, according to the Tennessee Department of Health’s County Data Snapshot. The number of active cases has continued to fall and was recorded at 989 for the same date, a 204-case difference from the 1,193 recorded one week prior.

The new active case count makes up 0.28 percent of the county’s overall population.

Public comments

Several parents and students spoke during the public hearing portion of the meeting, both for and against an extension of the policy.

One parent, Rachel Robinson, said she had been the first visitor’s form to be submitted and had been waiting to speak since 1:45 p.m. The online public participation form says “visitors are recognized to speak in the order their forms are received” in bold type.

Johnson said the board was going in the order that the forms were received and told Robinson that she would be removed from the meeting if she spoke out of turn again.

When it was her turn to speak, she displayed a map of her home state of Arizona before discussing the mask mandate, vaccines, lack of recess time, state obesity rates and a Columbus Day pamphlet distributed to her first-grade son.

She continued to discuss the issues she found with the “ugly hate” being taught in schools as the timer continued to chime signaling that her allotted three minutes had expired. Johnson asked Rutherford County Sheriff’s Officers to remove Robinson from the room.

The board also unanimously voted to deny the ReThink Forward charter school application for Rutherford Collegiate Prep after resubmission in the form of a resolution read by RCS Attorney Jeff Reed.

“They just don’t have any support in this county, and I don’t believe that this is something that we need,” said Maxwell.