Although they will be required to continue wearing face coverings in common areas, Johnson City students in grades K-4 will now be allowed to remove their masks while at their desks.

The Johnson City Board of Education approved changes to the system’s COVID-19 protocols on Monday, which included laxer policies on masking but also continuations of existing guidelines.

Safety Supervisor Greg Wallace noted that it’s much easier to contact trace students in grades K-4 because students stay in a consistent classroom cohort throughout the day. As students move beyond elementary school, it gets harder to track potential contacts, he said.

Pending continued improvement in COVID-19 data in Washington County, the system will also lift mask requirements for students starting in the summer session. They will instead be optional.

Additionally, staff recommended that the school system coordinate with the Washington County Health Department to create a vaccination pod for students and families. Currently, vaccinations are available to students age 16 and above. This would not be a requirement.

Wallace also recommended that the school system maintain its contact tracing and quarantining protocols. The system will continue to allow students to remove masks while outside and when they eat in the cafeteria.

Before their vote, school board members heard comments from parents who expressed concern about the physical and mental health impact of requiring children to wear masks.

As a mom, board member Ginger Carter said she’s ready for masking to end.

“I’m ready for masks to be over for my daughter,” she said, “and I’ve said every time I speak about (this that) I’m concerned about the mental health issues.”

Carter, who is a physician, said she typically writes more prescriptions for birth control than anything else, but she’s been more frequently writing prescriptions for mental health medication over the last year.

“We’ve had in the ER adolescents waiting for in-patient therapy and mental health ... so that’s very near and dear to my heart,” she said.

Up to this point, board chair Kathy Hall said, the board has supported decisions made by staff without voting on each change in protocol. At Carter’s suggestion, the board stipulated that any enhancements to the masking policy come back in front of them for review.

The body did not approve any changes to the masking policy for the 2021-22 school year, but Superintendent Steve Barnett said he hopes COVID-19 numbers will improve to the point that the board won’t have to have another conversation about these protocols.

Barnett said staff wanted to bring the recommendations to the board sooner, but they anticipated there would be a spike in COVID-19 cases after spring break, which did occur.

“I do think with the vaccine and everything else that everybody’s doing, that we’re heading in a very positive direction,” Barnett said. “The only reason we would revisit this is if there’s a big change. I’m hopeful and really feel like we’re coming to the end.”

Other business

• The school board also heard a presentation from staff about zoning changes for certain neighborhoods in the school system, which will involve reassigning students to add space at a couple schools.

At max, the changes could add 42 students to Lake Ridge Elementary School and 126 to Woodland Elementary. The city is constructing additional classrooms at those schools, and the buildings will therefore have more capacity for students.

Cherokee and Towne Acres elementary schools would lose 125 and 43 students respectively, which will add space as the system prepares to move fifth grade back to the elementary level.

• The school board also ratified a vote made by staff last month to switch the system from its existing self-insured plan to the state health insurance plan. The switch would the allow the system, which has lost several million dollars over the last few years on its current plan, to stem a rise in costs.

Overall, 772 employees voted to switch, and 44 voted against the change.