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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Brunswick School board mandates masks, decision to be revisited monthly

BRUNSWICK COUNTY –– Brunswick County Schools will require masks for all K-12 students at the onset of the quickly approaching academic year. 

The school board voted 4-1 Monday evening on the mask mandate, siding with the advice of the Brunswick County health department, which leaned on recent state health guidance. Superintendent Jerry Oates supported the decision and suggested the board revisit the mandate on a monthly basis depending on the spread of Covid-19.

RELATED: NHCS board votes to mandate masks, says it will keep students in school and out of quarantine

Vaccinated staff members will not be required to wear a mask. Face coverings will also not be required for students during strenuous activities.

The district’s recent survey collected 3,237 responses from parents, with 68% preferring masks not to be required, 24% asking that they should be mandatory, and 7% reporting they should be mandatory for elementary students. Of the 905 staff members that responded, 60% asked for an optional face-covering rule, 25% asked that it be required, and 15% reported they should be mandatory at the elementary level.

Covid in Brunswick

Brunswick County health director Cris Harrelson spoke before the board and informed them of the county’s increasing Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. 

Over the past two weeks, the county has added 1,057 cases, averaging 76 a day. That’s a 90% increase considering the county has added 1,407 cases since Fourth of July weekend, when the county was adding 40 new daily cases. 

“This is the highest our case rate has been since February,” Harrelson said. “Our Covid positivity rate is clearly going up.”

The delta variant, a more contagious strain of Covid-19 that may cause more severe illness, accounts for approximately 80% of new cases, state health officials estimate.

About 5% of the county’s middle and high school population aged 12 to 17 are vaccinated. Harrelson confirmed the department is aware of reports of pediatric cases rising in Louisiana but said there are no known hospitalizations or deaths for those under 18 in Brunswick County to date.

Board member David Robinson, who is a paramedic, said Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center was at capacity as of Thursday. A Novant spokesperson said the hospital has more Covid-19 patients today compared to its highest peak this past winter –– “despite having safe and effective vaccines widely available.” More than 90% of Covid patients are unvaccinated “and they are sicker than the patients we saw during earlier surges.”

“The average age of admitted patients is the lowest it has been since the pandemic started, likely due to the high vaccination rate among those 65 and older in Brunswick County,” the spokesperson wrote. “At the same time, our emergency departments are seeing higher than usual summer volumes of patients seeking care for other health concerns.”

After Harrelson’s presentation, an uncooperative audience vocalized agitations and shouted questions at him and the board. Chair Ed Lemon, in an attempt to quell the chorus, announced a five-minute recess. 

“You guys need to either shut up or leave this building.” 

“You shut up! Don’t talk to me like that!” an audience member responded, before he was escorted by a deputy out of the building. 

Amid continued shouts from the audience, Lemon then directed all audience members to clear the room. After recess, no general audience members returned, a Brunswick County Schools spokesperson confirmed. 

After the meeting resumed, board members Robin Moffit and Steven Barger said they didn’t think it was fair to remove attendees who were not disruptive. “I don’t agree with the people who were thrown out of the room who were not disruptive,” Moffit said. “This is America. We have freedom of speech. They were not being disruptive.”

Just four weeks ago, Barger traveled to Raleigh to help campaign for the “Free the Smiles Act,” a Senate bill that proposed to grant local school districts the right to choose whether to make masks mandatory. The following week Gov. Roy Cooper announced he’d let an executive order expire to give local boards flexibility. State health officials released an updated version of the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit alongside the governor’s announcement. 

Quarantine requirements kick in for those with exposure to the virus if they aren’t wearing a mask; if masks are properly being worn, quarantine isn’t required for close contacts. Upon realizing that keeping students masked would mean fewer students would be forced to quarantine, Barger’s opinion on masking shifted. 

“I was forced to change my mind,” he said. “If I made an emotional response just as a parent because my kids do go to Brunswick County schools, it would probably be to not wear a mask,” he said and added that as a board member, he must make responsible decisions for all of the district’s students and staff members. “I’m sweating . . . my kids hate it. They complain about it every day. But I want to keep these kids in school.”

Learning gaps created by remote education can only be mended in-person, he said, even if that means wearing a mask. 

“I gotta be honest with you. You can find anything you want to online right now. You can find literally an article and information for or against anything in this world. So I don’t think anybody really knows what to believe anymore,” he said. “We’re going to mend those gaps much more in the classroom with masks on than without them.”

Casting the lone dissenting vote against mandatory masks, Moffit pointed to conflicting research about masks. “Masks are debatable,” she said. “One study will find they reduce the spread of Covid-19 and one study will find that they did not protect anyone.”

Robinson, who said he also wished students didn’t have to wear masks, cited his concern for the latest Covid-19 trends and the need to listen to experts. “I am not qualified, nor will I risk a child’s life tonight,” he said. “I’m going to go to bed and sleep tonight, personally.”

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