Tarkington ISD board votes to keep COVID-19 mask policy, deny superintendent’s resignation

Kevin Johnson, a former Tarkington ISD board member, urged the current school board to support Marc Keith as superintendent. Johnson said Keith has been a blessing to the school district and is more qualified than most candidates the district could afford.

Tarkington ISD Superintendent Marc Keith and the District’s COVID-19 mask policy will remain through the end of the school year. Facing mounting pressure from some board members to defy Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order requiring students and staff wear masks and practice social distancing, Keith had offered to resign from the position he has held since 2018.

At a meeting on Feb. 8, the school board considered both items, as well as heard the results of a survey of District employees and parents regarding the mask policy. The meeting was moved to the commons area at Tarkington High School to accommodate the large crowd with most people in attendance seeming to be in support of Keith and the mask policy.

At the start of the meeting, the board moved into executive session to consider Keith’s resignation. When they returned, a vote was taken with Paige Bostwick, Kem Arnold and Lane Gulledge against the resignation. Donny Haltom, Dwayne Stovall and Board President Pete Vandver voted in favor. Board member Corey Anderson initially abstained from voting, which left the board split.

“Am I the tie-breaker?” Anderson asked. “Then I vote no.”

According to members of the board, Keith still plans to resign once he and the Board agree to the terms of his resignation.

With Keith’s resignation still up in the air, the board moved on to debate the District’s mask policy with several parents and teachers signed up for public comments. All who spoke urged the board members not to defy the Governor’s orders. They cited concerns of teacher and staff resignations, the ability for students to participate in extracurricular activities and being forced to return to distance learning.

“My fear as staff and a parent is having enough staff in the building to physically do that job of teaching all these students. We are not going to be able to hire enough long-term subs to fill those spots. If it gets bad enough and we lose enough people, then we will be combining classrooms,” said Tarkington High School teacher Jason Anderson.

Parent Kristin Thorp said a public health issue was being turned into a political issue by board members.

“If you decide today to overturn the guidelines that are currently in place, then we will be face with a trickle effect ahead such as teacher, staff and administrator resignations. The superintendent has already resigned. Do you really think the pool of qualified candidates to fill these positions will want to work for a school district that has gone against the (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines?” Thorp said. “Please consider the ramifications of this decision and ask yourself if this decision is motivated by personal and political agendas or if it is in the best interest of all. At the end of the day, you all have been put in elected positions to be a voice for our community.”

When a vote was taken, Haltom and Stovall voted in favor of defying the Governor’s orders and the remaining board members were against it.

Based on the results of the parent and staff survey regarding COVID-19 safety protocols, which were presented by Vandver, parents and staff members have opposing opinions. However, some in the audience questioned the low number of surveys as only 299 parent responses and 149 staff responses were received. Many claimed to have not received the survey from the District.

The staff survey shows overwhelming support for the District continuing with its current COVID-19 safety protocols, which involves a mask policy, contact tracing and social distancing, among other measures. Of the 149 staff members polled, 77.7 percent were in favor of the safety protocols, 76.5 were against returning to pre-COVID-19 protocols with no restrictions and 66.7 percent said they were uncomfortable working in an environment where masks are not required.

The majority of parents surveyed, 56.6 percent, said they want to continue with mandatory guidelines; however, only 38.5 percent said their child would still wear a mask if given the option.

The results of the survey were informational only and no vote was taken.

In other business, the Board voted to provide extra-duty stipends related to COVID-19 to Tarkington ISD school nurses. The stipends, ranging from $1,000 to $2,500, is to reward them for the tremendous job they have performed during the pandemic.

“They have gone above and beyond,” said Superintendent Keith, adding that the nursing staff is often working on weekends and holidays. “We want to reward them for the extra work they are doing.”

A retention plan to reward teachers was tabled for now. Keith said he wanted to get a complete account of all money that could go toward the stipends.

“We don’t want to leave money on the table that might go to our teachers,” he said.

If approved by the Board in the future, Keith suggested that the retention bonuses could be paid in the fall with the first payment coming in September and the second around Thanksgiving or Christmas.

The Board approved giving complete hiring authority to the superintendent and allowing Keith to make decisions regarding school closures when it was an issue of public and health safety.

Stovall said he was concerned about unnecessary school closures related to COVID-19.

“We end up being quarantined and shutting down the school because of numbers that are not scientific. We have a lot of healthy people sitting at home and we are getting into situations where, by numbers, we are shutting down an entire school district. I think it would be smart to have a consultation on that before we go to closing an entire school district,” he said.

Vandver said he understands Stovall’s concerns but it comes down to a matter of Board members not having time for extra consultations on closures.

“If he (Keith) has to make that decision and wants us to talk and meet about it, I wouldn’t be able to do that. On certain days and nights, I work shift work,” he said.

Bostwick added, “Isn’t this why we hire a superintendent? We have to trust that this guy is looking out for the best interests of the schools.”

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