A hotly-debated item from the 2020-21 school year has returned to Williamson County: face masks in schools.

While not on the agenda, parents in the Franklin Special School District spoke during public comment at the board of education's Aug. 9 meeting.

Parents on both sides of the issue expressed concerns over physical and mental health. Prior to the meeting, a number of parents gathered outside the meeting with signs encouraging the district to require masks for students and staff.

FSSD parent Angel Stansbury spoke about her concerns of the rising number of cases and policy not in line with recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes and social distancing measures are all well and good, but these are mitigating efforts at reducing the spread [and] such measures can only be truly effective when enacted alongside common sense protocols which mandate face coverings and temperature checks upon entering into the school," Stasbury said. "This is not about anybody's rights being taken away, and this is certainly not a debate about politics or religion. This is about following CDC-recommended guidelines and adapting to new scientific data and statistics of the rates of infection and adjusting those guidelines accordingly to accommodate a better safety rating for children, faculty and staff of FSSD schools."

Parents also spoke about the lack of remote learning options for students and parents who are concerned about sending their children for in-person learning without a mask requirement. District officials said the state board of education has ruled FSSD could not continue its online learning program without creating a separate online school. As a result, FSSD Director of Schools David Snowden said remote learning will likely not return during the 2021-22 school year.

Other parents expressed concern over students' mental health as a result of the pandemic.

"My son last year struggled on that front emotionally; he is now counseling because of the isolation that was in place," FSSD parent Katie Godson said. "Everyone's trying to keep children safe, but we do have to take into account their mental and emotional stability. It is not just our physical health. This is a whole package with our kids."

Because items related to masks in schools were not on the board's agenda, no action was taken during the meeting to change current policy, which states that masks are encouraged, but optional, for students and staff. However, Board chair Robert Blair said the district is continuously monitoring COVID-19 cases in the area and will make decisions based on guidance from the county health department as well as state departments.

"I'm hoping we're getting it right, but we're not done yet," Blair said. "We're going to continually work on this."