The debate over face masks and the strained relationship between the school board and county were  addressed at a Board of Education candidate forum last Thursday.

The forum was organized by retired journalism professor Lee Becker and can be viewed at vimeo.com/leebecker or oconeecountyobservations.org.

BOE Post 5 Republican candidate Michael Ransom, and his Democratic challenger, Joan Parker, were in attendance, as well as Post 4 Republican incumbent Tim Burgess. Post 4 Democratic challenger Laura Ormes could not attend due to a death in the family.

Becker’s first question to the three attending candidates was whether they support a mask mandate policy for Oconee County Schools.

Parker and Ransom both said yes, while Burgess said no. Burgess referenced Superintendent Jason Branch’s conversations with state department of health officials like commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey, whose advice was to encourage voluntary mask wearing. 

“That’s the basis on which the ‘Mask Up Oconee’ campaign [began],” he said. “It would be a much more effective means by which to achieve compliance with teachers and students understanding why.” 

Parker said that masks should be mandated in consideration of the medically fragile. She added that with elementary and middle schoolers, masks could be mandated with indoor groups and encouraged when students are socially distanced and outdoors.

“In the high schools, there’s much more opportunity for them to wear their masks,” she said. “They’re in the halls. They’re old enough. They can do it.” 

Ransom shared that although he had concerns about how a mask mandate would be enforced among older children, he believed older students could follow such a mandate if it was issued.

“Obviously, they can see the upsides of staying healthy and staying in school or staying quarantined or even worse, getting COVID and having detrimental effects from that,” he said. “Whatever allows us to keep the kids safe and in schools, I think that’s the better learning environment...if that’s what it takes to keep our kids safe, I’m definitely on board with that.”  

The candidates also fielded questions about digital learning and blended-learning methods.

For more on this story, see the Sept. 24 edition of The Oconee Enterprise, on sale now at convenience stores and grocery stores and newspaper boxes throughout Oconee County. To subscribe, call (706) 769-5175 or visit the tab on our website.

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