As Wilson County Schools prepares to open on Aug. 3, a student-led group called Mt. Juliet Teens for Change is petitioning the district to require face masks for students grades 7-12 and their faculty, and it has gathered more than 1,550 signatures as of Tuesday.

“The reason we did 7-12 is because Mt. Juliet High School and Green Hill High School are going to be 7-12 next year after the tornado, so we wanted to include them in that as well,” Green Hill High School rising junior Abby Hill said. “I think to mandate masks is such an easy thing to do. Other people’s lives are in danger, but they don’t care about that, they just care about the discomfort of themselves. That’s what makes me really angry.”

Hill is one of the group’s organizers, and approximately 24 students are involved in total. She said their petition does not include grades K-6 because it would be too difficult to enforce with young children.

Since forming around a month ago, the group has spread their petition through social media channels and met with county officials, and the Wilson County Board of Education may vote on the matter at a special called meeting today.

“We’re going to have someone from the Tennessee Department of Health deliver a presentation,” board chairman Larry Tomlinson said. “After some questions, we’ll have to consult with our county attorney ... we’ll try to make the best decision we can to make sure our students and faculty are all in a safe environment.”

Tomlinson said he is unsure if the board has the legal authority to mandate masks in school, noting that Williamson County Schools did so after their county mayor’s executive order. Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto announced his decision not to mandate masks during a press conference on July 8.

“I’ve talked to and heard from a lot of parents and youth,” Tomlinson said. “Opinions are pretty split, with some wanting it to be done and others wanting it left up to choice.”

If school starts up without a mask mandate, Mt. Juliet Teens for Change members plan to return to the classroom, rather than take the online option, and encourage their peers to wear them.

“Personally speaking, I have not done any schoolwork for six months,” GHHS rising junior Garner Cherry said. “We got hit with the tornado, we had spring break and then we’re not going back because of the coronavirus. They were like, ‘Here’s all these virtual learning opportunities’ … I’m confused on what’s graded and what’s not, and I don’t know what’s going on due to poor communication.”

Cherry said he realized the virtual learning was optional after around a month, and stopped working on it because he saw no educational benefit.

“It’s not graded at all, and none of this is very helpful because all the classes I’ve taken, we hit the end of what we needed to know for things like the ACT,” he said. “There’s nothing driving me to do the work … if it’s anything like that in the fall for virtual learning, it’d be terrible.”

Wilson County Schools’ Virtual Learning Plan for the fall is focused on an online platform accessible to students, teachers and families, and would require a parent or guardian to serve as a learning coach for children K-8 during school hours.

“I think for a lot of people, how things were from March to May and what virtual learning will look like during the fall are night and day different,” Wilson County Schools Public Information Officer Bart Barker said. “We had to do the best we could before in unexpected circumstances, and although things are going to be different we’ve had four to five months to prepare.”

Barker said families will receive additional resources about virtual learning after registration closes, but that live group learning sessions, activity breaks, parents’ role in the process and extracurricular activities should help address concerns.

“When it comes to extracurriculars, virtual students will be able to do that,” he said. “For specific clubs, they’ll need to contact their school or contact us to plug into the right person to talk to, and they can attend on-ground club meetings or club events from there.”

One thing the virtual program will not include is Advanced Placement coursework. GHHS rising sophomore Madison Streszoff said that and reduced socialization are major reasons she wants to avoid online learning.

“I think, especially at our age, we’re still developing a lot of social skills,” she said. “I know for younger people especially, but even us as high schoolers, we still have to interact with people our age, and I know that I want to see people my age that aren’t just my little brother. It’s good for us to grow as people, and I think it would be hard to have to choose over your education and social growth just to stay healthy or keep someone else healthy.”

Streszoff also supports a mask mandate because she lives with her grandmother, who is at higher risk for COVID-19 complications because of her age.

“When you look at the statistics and you look at the number of deaths of people who get infected with COVID-19, there have been in our state about 800,” Cherry said. “The fact that we’re expecting teachers and staff members to come back … we’re literally asking them to potentially die for the cause of giving children a public education, which I just don’t think is just or fair. If we all wear masks the transfer rate is so much lower.”

Although the students have received hundreds of signatures, they have also received pushback from others in the community — which they attribute to a politicization of masks.

“I think whatever you do in life and whenever you’re pushing for a cause, you’re always going to have pushback,” Hill said. “Honestly, it’s fine. It’s something we’re going to have to deal with as we go through life and I don’t think it’s really affected us at all. It just kind of baffles us how ignorant people are.”

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