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NC Board Of Education Member Questions Decision To Drop School Mask Mandate

Ann Doss Helms

With COVID-19 cases rising and the statewide opening of schools getting close, one North Carolina Board of Education member questioned whether it’s wise to let school districts opt out of requiring masks in classrooms.

At Thursday's state board meeting, health officials repeated cautions that have become familiar in recent weeks: The delta variant is moving all measures of COVID-19 in the wrong direction. Vaccination is the best tool for keeping kids safely in school. And universal masking also provides protection.

North Carolina’s Deputy Health Secretary Susan Gale Perry noted that children under 12 can’t get the shots, and almost three-quarters of 12- to 17-year-olds aren’t yet fully vaccinated.

"What we know is that the more concentrated susceptible people are, the easier it is for this virus to find its next victim," she said.

The state is currently urging schools to require masks for everyone, but not requiring it. So far 36 districts, including the large urban ones, have announced they’ll open with a mask mandate, but another 50 districts are opening with masks optional.

Perry says school leaders should already know what they need to do to deter spread and avoid quarantines.

"I think we know better," board member James Ford of Charlotte said. "I’ve yet to see that translating to doing better. So our knowledge versus our actions, I think there’s a disparity there that removing that requirement is a bit concerning to me."

Board Chair Eric Davis of Charlotte said what he got from the report was that "we are entering a new phase in this battle that’s potentially more threatening than the phase we’ve survived thus far, and that while we all value our own individual choices in this battle, our individual choices affect each other."

State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who is a member of the board, talked about COVID-19 sending him to intensive care in March 2020.

"I can tell you how intense and how serious and dangerous it is," he said. He encouraged the board to keep challenging assumptions about how to deal with the virus.

"Obviously we're dealing with a situation where people are getting information that may not be completely accurate, and that poses a problem for trying to run the Department of Public Instruction," he said. Folwell, who says he was vaccinated after he had COVID-19, didn't specify which assumptions he's concerned about.

Whatever their decisions, school district leaders say they’re watching COVID-19 metrics to see if any changes are needed. Most North Carolina schools will bring students back the week of Aug. 23, but a few have already opened.

Union Academy, a K-12 charter school in Monroe, started classes July 26 with almost half of the 2,000 students exempted from wearing masks. When 14 cases cropped up in the first week and more than 150 staff and students were quarantined, the school clamped down and required a doctor's note to get a mask exemption.

As of Wednesday, Union Academy had 35 people testing positive for COVID-19, including three staff and 32 students.

Copyright 2021 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association and won the 2015 Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries.
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