NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– The New Hanover County Board of Education took its monthly vote Tuesday on the district’s mask protocol, a new requirement of the state. There is still a countywide mask mandate in effect that trumps the district’s decisions.
The vote was made in compliance with a new law Gov. Roy Cooper signed Aug. 31. Senate Bill 654 requires North Carolina school boards to adopt a mask policy and re-vote monthly to consider modifications.
Chair Stefanie Adams made the early motion to continue masks in September with a quick second from vice chair Nelson Beaulieu. It passed 6-1, with Pete Wildeboer opposed.
Wildeboer explained one mask he saw had a message on its inside that warned it should not be used as a replacement for medical-grade personal protective equipment. He asked Superintendent Charles Foust whether it was a possibility to provide all students with N95s, which he considers to be the only effective mask.
“I think it’s very, very important that we keep our students safe,” Wildeboer said, “and if that means paying a couple of dollars per child to get a mask or a different mask –– I mean, if we’re gonna do it, we do right or we don’t do it at all.”
Board member Judy Justice questioned the practicality of enforcing N95s over cotton face coverings for children. Board member Stephanie Walker said cotton does protect, per the CDC, and N95s should be reserved for doctors and nurses.
Foust plans to report back to the board on possibly acquiring N95s, as well as KN95s, at an upcoming meeting. Board member Stephanie Kraybill suggested the district also continue to study appropriate face-covering options, such as neck gaiters.
Beaulieu said he hoped the board would continue following the science moving forward as it now votes monthly on the divisive issue.
“I think it’s a mistake to just dismiss people who have legitimate concerns about how their children are learning in these,” Beaulieu said. “It’s not as simple as we might want to believe for some of our kids. And I think it’s right that we talk about that and acknowledge that for a second. Just because somebody said, ‘Hey, I really think my kids will be better without the mask.’ Not a bad person. You know, they still believe in science. There are real issues to consider.”
Earlier in the meeting, chair Adams asked deputies to escort out a group who sat maskless in protest at the back of the room. The crowd argued they are taxpayers but were deemed out of order by Adams and eventually trickled out of the room.
“See y’all in court, every one of you,” one man yelled. “Including you. Including you. Including you.”
Another woman shouted, “Safety but we can bring guns to school,” referring to a shooting at New Hanover High last week, which she said her child was at.
Board member Hugh McManus pointed out the countywide mask mandate is still in effect, regardless of this state-required vote by the board of education.
New Hanover County ordered an indoor face covering requirement Aug. 20, the Friday before the first day of classes.
Weeks earlier, New Hanover County Schools first decided unanimously on Aug. 3 to enforce masks in the new school year. The board made the decision in light of new statewide quarantine guidance that does not require students exposed to Covid-19 to stay home if people were appropriately wearing masks. Most quarantines are assigned when people are exposed in the high-capacity cafeterias, where masks are not worn, explained Julie Varnam, student support services assistant superintendent.
The district’s Covid-19 reporting currently shows positive case numbers are now outpacing quarantines.
Chief communications officer Josh Smith presented there are 257 quarantines in New Hanover County Schools, compared to 2,146 in Wake County. Cumberland and Johnston are quarantining just over 1,000 students and staff members, while Union County has more than 5,400. Union County Public Schools is one of five districts in the state keeping masks optional indoors.
Board member Justice questioned the accuracy of the Covid-19 dashboard, an ongoing concern since it was first implemented. The dashboard was recently re-established after school officials originally said it would not return this year and several media outlets reported on the lost reporting method.
Varnam explained the dashboard does not necessarily show real-time data since some information is missing from the past 48 to 72 hours.
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