Friday, July 19, 2024

After Pender schools’ mask-optional rule, Brunswick schools looks for feedback

Community members stand with “un-mask our children” signs at a New Hanover County Schools board meeting in July. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. –– Governor Roy Cooper’s decision to allow the state’s last remaining mask mandate to expire at the end of the month has placed local school districts in tricky territory: It gives them much sought-after local control but also removes a boogeyman, putting more pressure on local decisions that can impact public health. 

In a Friday meeting, the Pender County Board of Education unanimously adopted a resolution that makes face coverings for all students and staff optional for the upcoming school year.

RELATED: Cooper asks K-8 public school students to remain masked indoors

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services released a StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12) July 21, updating its guidance and requirements. Among the key takeaways: 1. Masks are no longer required, but they’re strongly recommended at the K-8 grade levels, considering children under 12 cannot get vaccinated; and 2. Quarantine requirements have loosened. 

Just 5% of the 12-to-17 age group has been fully vaccinated, according to the latest NCDHHS data available.

At the onset of the virus, the N.C. General Assembly passed a broad civil personal and sovereign immunity act, shielding both people and governments from lawsuits and damages if someone were to contract Covid-19, outside of gross negligence, willful or wanton conduct, or intentional wrongdoing. 

Pender County Schools board attorney Brandon McPherson cited this immunity at the board’s Friday meeting, qualifying that it applies so long as the district follows the recommended guidance. Because the toolkit includes a universal masking recommendation (not a requirement), McPherson surmised the district would still be protected under the state’s Covid-19 liability immunity law. 

“[L]ocal boards now have authority granted to them by the regulatory agencies and state law to make determinations about face coverings without fear of any civil lawsuit being brought by someone for contracting Covid-19,” he said.

Civil immunity is subject to compliance with guidance from regulatory agencies, the attorney said.

The toolkit recommends districts that do not require masking for unvaccinated individuals to adopt a “layered mitigation strategy, including physical distancing, ventilation, hand hygiene,” closely monitor cases, and provide adequate access to diagnostic and screening testing.

Pender’s mask-optional resolution also includes a mandate to not tolerate mask-related bullying for any reason. Moments after the board adopted the resolution, an unnamed woman spoke out of turn from the audience before leaving the room: “Y’all are using our kids as political pawns and it’s messed up. This is on y’all’s head if our kids start to get sick,” she said. “I really hope y’all know y’all are an embarrassment –– straight up an embarrassment. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

While it’s chocked full of recommendations, it does include several requirements, especially related to symptomatic individuals, positive cases, and close contacts. It includes four new exemptions to when a student or staff member is required to quarantine after being exposed to a Covid-19 positive individual closer than 6 feet in proximity for more than 15 cumulative minutes over a 24-hour period). 

Quarantine is not required of the exposed individual after a close contact: 

  • if they’re vaccinated with no symptoms; 
  • if they previously tested positive for Covid-19 within the past three months and has no; symptoms;
  • if both the exposed person and potentially infected person were properly wearing masks;
  • if an unvaccinated person received a positive antibody test within three months.

The CDC lightened its quarantine recommendations in December 2020, with shortened durations if the exposed individual has no symptoms. Still, the CDC recommends a seven-day minimum quarantine for an exposed individual if they obtain a negative Covid-19 test on day five; for unclassified staff members, this likely presents a difficult predicament, with no funding source immediately available to cover these missed days of work. 

Brunswick prepares for decision

Brunswick County Board of Education, another all-Republican school board, will decide on its mask rules on Aug. 3 (though this meeting day may get pushed back by a week). 

Monday, the district released a staff and parent survey, seeking input on implementing face-covering requirements. The results of the survey will be shared with board members before they make their decision. 

The three options available in the parent survey –– which leaves no space for open comment suggestions –– ask respondents to choose from either requiring or making masks optional at all grade levels or requiring face coverings inside all elementary schools. The survey does not include an option for K-8 masking, which was specifically recommended in the toolkit.

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