TUPEO • Face masks will be optional for Tupelo Public School District students beginning Wednesday, following a policy change approved by the district's Board of Trustees to shift criteria for lifting its mask mandate on Tuesday afternoon.
The board voted during its September meeting to base the district's masking policy on Lee County's positivity rate, but criteria for setting and lifting mask mandates will now be based on the district's quarantine rate.
Superintendent Dr. Rob Picou said the change was recommended to the board because, based on the district's analysis of data, no transmission was occurring in schools. COVID-19 cases among students and staff were occurring in the community, not at school.
"The whole thing, like I've said before, has been risk and reward," Picou said. "We adjust a variable and see what the outcome is. We'll monitor the numbers now and see what happens. With any luck, they'll stay right where they are."
TPSD Board President Joe Babb said the test positivity rate trended exactly with case numbers last school year, but that has not been the case recently. While the number of COVID cases have declined over the last few weeks, the positivity rate has remained relatively static, Babb said.
The bar for lifting the mask mandate is having fewer than 5% of students and staff quarantined for a period of two weeks, which is considered "minimal/moderate spread."
Picou said the district quarantine rate has been below 5% for several weeks now. As of Friday, the quarantine rate was just 1.03%, he said.
Between Aug. 28 and Sept. 23, there were 137 positive COVID-19 cases among students, teachers and staff in Tupelo Schools. Last week, that number had decreased to 27 — the lowest number of cases during a single week this school year.
When the quarantine rate is 5% or higher, spread is considered "substantial" and masks will be required.
Additionally, when the quarantine rate is below 5% but an individual school has multiple outbreaks (three or more cases within a classroom setting) over a five-day period, masks will be required for that individual school until the quarantine rate has a two-week trend of less than 5%.
The policy was previously based on having Lee County's test positivity rate, which is the percentage of COVID-19 tests administered in a specific area that come back positive, remain at or below 10% for a period of two weeks.
Masks have been required for students and staff since the start of the school year on Aug. 4.
When the TPSD Board first mandated masks during a special called meeting on Aug. 2, they committed to making masks optional as soon as it was deemed safe.
"We've just tried to do our best for our students, teachers and stakeholders," Babb said. "If the threat arises again, we won't hesitate to ask that (masks be worn) again."