NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– The New Hanover County Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday night to start the new school year with a mask requirement for grades K-12. The officials concluded it was their best bet to keep students in the classroom as much as possible this year, considering the state does not require masked students to quarantine following Covid-19 exposure.
“We will be reviewing data and paying attention to it closely as we go, with the hope that we will be able to drop masks when it is safe,” said chair Stefanie Adams, “and we can keep our kids within the classroom for the instructional time.”
The school board made the decision during its regular monthly meeting, held virtually over Zoom since one member tested positive for Covid-19 recently and potentially exposed others.
Vice chair Nelson Beaulieu was absent from the meeting.
Adams initiated the motion, seconded by Stephanie Walker. The chairperson said she “wouldn’t wish” on anyone the job of making pandemic-driven decisions for the county’s public school students. Board members received around 700 to 800 emails about the divisive topic over the past week, Adams said.
“As a parent of a soon-to-be fourth-grader, I really wanted the year to be starting without masks,” Adams said. “I really wanted to be through the pandemic. I wanted to believe that we were going to be back to normal. And, unfortunately, we’re not.”
In New Hanover County and throughout the state, Covid-19 is resurging and the delta variant is concerning health officials. Cases more than tripled in the county in recent weeks, from just over 100 new positives two weeks ago to 383 last week.
Positive cases are mainly amongst the unvaccinated. Still, fully vaccinated individuals are catching the virus, noted Julie Varnam, student support services assistant superintendent. As of July, 32% of the county’s 12- to 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated. Statewide, just 5% of this cohort have received at least one dose.
For over a year now, New Hanover County Schools has regularly referred to the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit when making decisions about Covid-19 precautions, from reopening schools to hosting “danceless” proms. The toolkit contains both requirements relating to proper quarantine procedures and a multitude of recommendations for safe in-person practices districts can employ to reduce the spread of the virus.
Currently, the living document recommends districts require all K-12 students to wear masks. Mask-wearing in public schools was required under an executive order Gov. Roy Cooper let expire at the end of July, giving individual school districts local control over whether to enforce the recommended face coverings.
“The health department in New Hanover County advises we follow these quote-unquote ‘shoulds,’ from the toolkit, based on community data,” Varnam told board members.
Adams suggested masks as the best move to ensure students remain in the classroom face-to-face with their teacher. Per the toolkit, students who are exposed to Covid-19 would not need to quarantine if the masks were worn consistently during contact. The toolkit states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of viral transmission is extremely low in classrooms when face masks are used appropriately.
Without masks, students are more likely to be sent home following exposure and would miss out on in-person instruction. Instead, they would have to learn from a paper packet or tablet, as they did last year, Adams pointed out.
“A lot of the parents that are asking for no masks are the same parents that wanted kids in school last year,” the chairperson said.
Every member spoke in agreement. Board members Hugh McManus and Stephanie Kraybill both acknowledged they were previously leaning toward “choice,” but due to the changes in the data, they would rather keep an eye on the transmission rates and decide later whether to ditch masks.
McManus called it being proactive rather than reactive.
“I think we need the inconvenience for the safety of our staff, in addition to our students,” McManus said.
Board member Pete Wildeboer said he felt strongly about giving the parents a choice as well, but expressed it was also important to him to keep students in schools.
“Instead of having half a class that has to go home, you may have one child that goes home and hopefully recovers quickly,” he said. “I’m all about having students in the classroom learning. So I think that that’s the clear choice at this time.”
Walker pointed out a lot of experts were recommending masks, including the American Academy of Pediatrics. She said the NHCS staff and superintendent did as well.
“We want to keep kids in school,” Walker said. “We want to raise those literacy rates. We want to keep us all safe, keep all the kids safe.”
Board member Judy Justice agreed with the rest of the board, reiterating the feeling that they should err on the side of caution, both for the community’s safety and to avoid going backward and shutting down schools.
Pender County’s school board unanimously voted to make masks optional July 23; Brunswick County’s school board will decide Aug. 9.
Send tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org