By JAYMIE BAXLEY
Students and employees of Moore County’s public schools will be required to wear face coverings indoors until at least the end of September.
The Moore County Board of Education on Monday voted 4-3 in support of a staff recommendation to make masks mandatory for students and faculty members, effective immediately, until at least Oct. 4, when the issue will be reviewed. Similar mandates are currently in effect for public school districts in seven of the nine counties that surround Moore.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services have recently recommended indoor masking in schools. The latest guidance comes amid a national surge in COVID-19 cases that has been fueled by the highly contagious delta variant of the virus.
Over 400 new infections have been recorded by the Moore County Health Department since Aug. 1, more than four times the number of cases reported during the entire month of June. Citing data from the Health Department, Tim Locklair, chief officer of Academic and Student Support Services for Moore County Schools, said there are currently 60 active cases involving children and teenagers younger than 18 — the highest tally since mid-January.
In addition to requiring face coverings in K-12 settings, the new policy makes masks mandatory in Pre-K classrooms for the first time. Masks must also be worn on school buses and during indoor athletic events.
Superintendent Robert Grimesey said he supported the mandate because it will help the district avoid disruptions to in-person instruction. Unvaccinated students who are exposed to COVID-19 in classrooms and other school settings do not have to quarantine at home in districts where masks are required, according to the latest interim guidance from DHHS.
“One month ago, I would have absolutely no problem recommending a masks-optional approach,” Grimesey said. “The quarantines really concern me — the disruptive effect that that has. I’ve got to come down on the side of wanting to have in-person instruction and wanting to have the maximum number of our children in the building.”
He added: “If these numbers continue to get worse, then I would recommend that we would sustain (the policy). If we see improvement, then I would recommend that we would reconsider it.”
More than 20 audience members weighed in on the proposed policy during the public-comment period of Monday’s meeting, which was held in the auditorium of Union Pines High School. The vast majority of speakers said they opposed mandatory masking for students, with many of them arguing that the decision should be made on an individual-basis by the students’ parents.
“I have listened to the parents and the taxpayers, and I agree that each parent has a right to do what they think is best for their children,” said Ed Dennison, the board member who made the motion to approve the mask mandate. “But each parent does not have a right to decide what is best for all of our 12,000 students. Since everyone cannot agree on what we should do, I’m making my decision on what I think is best for keeping our 12,000 students in school for in-person learning instead of being quarantined.”
Dennison noted that the county’s rolling weekly average of new cases had climbed from 1.1 infections on June 28 to 47.4 infections for the seven days ending Monday. He also noted that the positivity rate for coronavirus testing in the county stood at 16.4 percent on Monday, which is much higher than the statewide average.
While board member Stacy Caldwell said she agreed that “masks should be a parent-choice,” she ultimately voted in support of the policy.
“I do believe parents should make the decision, but I do not think 30 days will ruin anything,” she said. “It will tell us more about what’s going on in our classrooms and if (masks) are needed, and if they are worth it.”
Also voting in favor of the mandate was Pam Thompson, who works in finance at Randolph Hospital in Asheboro.
“Masks in our profession are and have always been a key measure and extremely crucial to suppress the transmission of infectious disease,” Thompson said, adding that the virus is currently spreading “like wildfire” in hospitals across the region.
Libby Carter, chairwoman of the board, also voted to approve the mandate. She noted that face coverings were recently made mandatory at several private schools in the area, including local charter schools, St. John Paul II Catholic School and The O’Neal School, as well as at Sandhills Community College.
“(Teachers) don’t want to wear masks, we don’t want to wear masks, none of the parents in the audience want to wear masks,” Carter said. “I understand that, but what I want even more is to have children in the classroom with a teacher.”
Board members David Hensley, Philip Holmes and Robert Levy voted against the masking requirement.
“The bottom line is that I believe that we have to allow parents to decide for their children,” Levy said in a comment that was met with cheers and applause from the audience. He went on to point out that none of the school board members seated at the dais during the meeting were wearing face coverings.
“I don’t believe that we need to mandate for our children, who are less vulnerable than we are, that they must have masks, vaccinated or not — in terms of our high schools especially — when we don’t have masks,” Levy said. “I would love to have one single solution that works for everyone, but when we have these problems, when we have these divisions, we have to decide based upon liberty … . Liberty means that parents are responsible for their children, and we as a school board must do the best that we possibly can to ensure that for the parents.”
Addressing his fellow board members’ concerns that more students would be forced to go into quarantine without the policy, Hensley said that quarantine guidelines vary from county to county. He suggested that the board look into the “spectrum of leniency” for other school districts.
“I’ve seen some school districts that don’t have these draconian quarantine rules, which means their county must not have the same quarantine rules that we do,” he said.
The board is expected to revisit the masking policy when it convenes again on Oct. 4.
Jaymie Baxley can be reached at (910) 693-2484 or email@example.com.