NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County Schools extended its mask mandate for students and staff after an hour-plus debate over a virtual meeting that ended in a 5-2 vote. The board of education made plans last week to revisit its face covering requirement Monday evening, following the New Hanover County Health and Human Services board meeting Friday during which the countywide mandate was lifted.
“I’m fired up right now,” board member Pete Wildeboer said. “And I’m gonna be honest about that. My question to our board is: Why did we not take this vote on Tuesday? If we didn’t really care what came out of the meeting on Friday, then what was the premise? Why do we delay it till today? It makes no sense.”
The extension goes against the lead of the health and human services board, which decided 8-4 Friday to end the countywide indoor face covering mandate. Schools are now one of the few places where masks are still required in New Hanover County.
Since August, when the county and school district implemented their policies, the local percent positivity rate has fallen from over 15% to around 2.5%. Statewide, the percent positivity rate is 6.2%. There were just seven cases of Covid-19 reported by the school district last week, down from 241 cases in early September.
But a majority of board members felt it was worth waiting until January to give parents the chance to vaccinate their children, with ages 5-11 only recently becoming eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine.
“I want my child to have that opportunity before masks are optional within our schools,” chair Stefanie Adams said. “And I am not alone with that. For as many parents as we have heard that want masks to be optional, we have heard from a lot of parents –– ‘Can we just wait until my child can get vaccinated?’ We listen to all the voices.”
Board member Judy Justice made the motion to extend the mandate, soon after she asked public health director David Howard if the low case count was to be attributed to the masks.
“I believe so. Absolutely. Yes,” Howard said. “Again, those masks being worn in addition to the teachers and parents and community getting vaccinated. There’s just less and less of a chance of transmission within the schools.”
Board member Stephanie Kraybill seconded the motion, urging the board to consider preserving student instruction time by limiting quarantines. When NHCS first voted Aug. 3 unanimously to enforce masks in the new school year, the decision was made largely with the statewide quarantine guidance in mind. Students exposed to Covid-19 do not need to quarantine if everyone in the room was appropriately masked and they are asymptomatic. If masks weren’t worn, a person would need to be fully vaccinated and asymptomatic to avoid a quarantine assignment. It is up to contract tracers to find out from the parent if a child has received the Covid-19 vaccine.
Board member Stephanie Walker echoed Kraybill’s statements, adding that she was nervous about a Covid-19 surge from the holidays and kids losing learning time. She indicated she would rather hold off until the new year, which would give families the time to get their kids fully vaccinated.
“If it weren’t for masks, our kids wouldn’t even be in school,” Walker said.
Vice chair Nelson Beaulieu voted against the motion. He accused other members of putting outspoken, concerned parents who are opposed to masks into a political “box.”
“I just feel like we have reached a point with such low risk to our students, that there is a cost to this level of precaution,” he said. “I think it’s serious and I really urge every board member to take a minute and think about that, and just realize … We had six people show up in yellow shirts, but we had 600 parents show up.”
Wildeboer sided with Beaulieu in the debate, pointing out he had 59 emails pleading for an end to masks. He suggested the board was “robbing” students and, as an example, said Kindergarteners are struggling to learn to form sounds and read letters with masks on.
“We’re all, ‘Oh, we’re afraid this might happen.’ You know, I’d like to see the metrics on how many students have died from the flu,” Wildeboer said. “We could look at those kinds of things. If masks work –– and that’s a huge ‘if’ … parents will have the choice. I think we’re losing that whole concept here. If I want to mask my child, then I can mask my child.”
After holding her comments until the near end of the discussion, Adams came forward and explained she wanted to ensure all parents had time to vaccinate their kids. Her statements made clear the majority would be voting to extend the mask mandate. The chairperson added that she would be uncomfortable being in the minority of North Carolina school districts that have an optional policy.
As of Monday, 30 schools districts in North Carolina have removed their mask mandates and 87 are still requiring face coverings, according to a spreadsheet kept by the North Carolina School Board Association. Mooresville Graded School District requires face coverings for pre-K through sixth grade and allows seventh through 12th graders, who have been eligible for vaccinations longer, the choice.
Board members expressed interest in going optional by January. The board will need to revote on its mask policy once more between now and then, as part of a state-required monthly vote.
“Can we not compromise?” board member Hugh McManus said toward the end of the meeting. “Quit attacking each other. Do what’s best for all. If we need to stay with the masks for 16 days [until the end of the semester], it’s worth it if we all agree we’re going optional in January.”
Neighboring counties have returned to optional policies. Pender County Schools stopped requiring masks on Oct. 4, and Brunswick County Schools made masks optional Nov. 2, with the stipulation that a mask mandate would go back into effect at an individual school if the campus reaches a positivity rate of 10%.
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