PENDER COUNTY –– Two days before the first day of school, the Pender County Board of Education voted 3-1 to implement a mask mandate at an emergency-called meeting held Saturday morning.
The decision reverses the board’s previous policy, set July 23, to give families the choice for students to wear masks in school.
Board members did so in light of alarming trends caused by the delta variant, which have strained hospital resources. New Hanover Regional Medical Center announced it was treating the highest number of Covid-19 patients since the onset of the pandemic, with 104 hospitalized as of Friday.
Twenty percent of the year-round Penderlea Elementary School was in quarantine Friday, with 41 total positive cases since the year began on July 19. The school continued for two weeks with optional face covrings until the governor’s order requiring them expired July 31.
Board members met in a nearly hour-and-a-half closed session before reopening the meeting, inviting Pender County director of nursing, Shirley Steele, to share an update.
County health officials have a “backlog of hundreds of cases,” she explained, making contract tracing in real-time impossible. The department has even called in state resources to relieve the workload.
“[W]e’re just really totally overwhelmed right now,” she said.
The county has seen four Covid-19 deaths in the last two weeks, all among unvaccinated individuals, Steele reported. Demand for testing is high, but due to staffing shortages, the county health department can only offer two half-days of testing per week. Pender Memorial Hospital asked the county if it could assist because the rural hospital’s emergency department is being overrun with people seeking to get tested, she said.
Depsite posted positions to alleviate the stress, jobs remain unfilled. Vaccinated individuals contracting the virus present with “vague” symptoms or no symptoms, presenting a major concern for spreading the contagious variant, she explained.
Ken Smith, the lone board member to vote against the mandate, shared sentiments other board members said they also agreed with. “My concern is personal liberties of each individual and making decisions for themselves on their own medical treatments,” he said. “I for one cannot support taking away someone’s choice in wearing a mask or not wearing a mask.”
Board member Beth Burns, who said she favored a mask-optional approach ultimately sided with the mandate, citing the need to prioritize face-to-face instruction. “I still believe in parent choice when it comes to masking,” she said.
State quarantine rules grant exceptions in the event of an exposure to those who are properly masked, regardless of vaccination status. Universal mask-wearing will ensure students stay in school without triggering mass quarantines.
Board chair Cindy Fontana (who did not have a vote but favored the mandate) also pointed out the operational difficulties quarantines among staff bring the district.
“We’re already short right now on staff. we can’t fill part of the positions we have,” she said. “And if we have staff who are exposed and staff who have to go home, because they’re not vaccinated and that’s their choice, then we’re trying to find subs. and quite honestly, it’s hard to find subs right now.”
The board will revisit the decision in two weeks, on Sept. 7.
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