PENDER COUNTY –– Pender County Schools will no longer enforce masks in its 18 schools starting Monday, Oct. 4.
Board of education vice chair Brad George made the motion in a meeting Tuesday morning. It was seconded by member Ken Smith and passed unanimously.
North Carolina school boards are required to review and vote on their mask policies once a month under a new law signed in August.
Passengers on school buses will continue wearing masks due to an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that applies to all public transportation.
The board briefly discussed options for reversing the mandate if Covid-19 trends worsen, without having to call an emergency meeting. One idea floated was to grant the superintendent discretion; however, the board chose to pursue the motion as originally proposed.
Pender County is reporting some of the highest case counts ever among its youth. The week of Sept. 5, the number of children 0 to 17 who tested positive for Covid-19 was the greatest the county’s ever tracked at 165 cases. For the last three weeks, cases among youth remained higher than any other age group at 412.
The week of Sept. 13, 56 children tested positive, with an average of two exposures for each case, according to a presentation from Pender County’s health director Carolyn Moser and director of nursing Shirley Steele. On Monday, 23 cases were diagnosed and about three exposures were identified per case.
Pender County’s positivity rate is 15.3%, the lowest since Aug. 2. Health officials suggested this was a possible sign of cases trending down, though the county is still averaging about 50 new diagnoses a day.
In Pender County, 18 people succumbed to the virus in the last 30 days. Currently, 13 Covid-19 patients are hospitalized. According to the latest state data, Pender County has a lower full vaccination rate (44%) compared to the state (57%).
The health department did not share a recommendation specific to masks during the meeting but did suggest the main goal is “to keep kids in school and keep them healthy.”
Earlier in the meeting, George led a unanimous motion to direct school nurses to no longer issue quarantine or isolation orders and leave that role to the county health department.
“We have taken a lot of verbal abuse –– I guess you would call it –– for things that we’re not able to change, and this is one of those things,” George said.
He referenced the StrongSchools NC Toolkit guidance, which states: “Schools should follow the recommendations of their local public health department regarding quarantine. Local public health authorities make the final decisions about how long quarantine should last in the communities they serve, based on local conditions and needs.”
“That one verse, it tells you that the school system has no authority on shortening quarantines or even placing someone under quarantine or isolation,” he explained. “So that is the reason for this change. It’s not that we’re not going to be quarantining or isolating. It’s just that we won’t be directing it as a school staff.”
Pender County Schools originally planned to begin the school year with an optional mask policy but reversed its decision two days before the first day of school after 20% of Penderlea Elementary was placed in quarantine. The year-round school ran with optional face coverings for two weeks.
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