'We’re getting there': A road map to optional masking for Chatham’s schools

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Four months after the Chatham County Schools Board of Education first approved universal indoor masking on its campuses this school year, Superintendent Anthony Jackson asked the school community at the board’s Nov. 8 meeting to “stay the course for just a little while longer” before moving to optional masking.

“We’re getting there, I wish that we could just stop tonight, but my heart of hearts tells me that we can’t,” Jackson said at that meeting. “I would just ask that we just stay the course for just a little while longer, give those who want the vaccine time to get the vaccine, those who take advantage of those mitigation strategies, time to do that. And then, if we can’t make them take the vaccine, we don’t want to — we’ve never pushed any one thing other than trying to keep kids in school.”

Since September, the board has taken a vote regarding its masking policy each month, in accordance with state law. Jackson asked the board to reaffirm the district’s universal masking policy to keep students in the classroom. The Nov. 8 vote marked the first that was not unanimous, with board member David Hamm dissenting.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, parents at the meeting almost exclusively asked that the district remove its masking policy. Throughout the meeting, Hamm raised a few questions about masking, primarily regarding the low transmission rate of COVID-19 at CCS. He also seemed to question the safety of vaccines, though CCS administration has never indicated any sort of vaccine mandate.

“In short, it’s time to move on!!!” Hamm told the News + Record in an email regarding the district’s mask mandate. He mentioned the districts in the state that have recently moved to make masks optional. At least 39 of North Carolina’s 115 school districts have voted to make mask-wearing optional, according to a database by the N.C. School Boards Association.

“From day one there have been so many conflicting stories, facts, and downright lies that it is hard to see through the smoke and mirrors of what (has) really been going on for two years,” Hamm said. “Yes, time to move on. Some may want to wear their masks the rest of their lives, that’s their choice. For those who don’t, that too should be their choice.”

CCS administration has long cited masking as the most important tool to keeping students in the classroom by keeping case transmission within school buildings low. There have been 293 cases among students and staff since the first day of school, and just two clusters, according to the district’s COVID dashboard on Wednesday. The district’s positive case rate has lingered under 1% the entire school year, which is lower than the transmission rate in Chatham as a whole.

So, when should the district transition to optional masking? The News + Record spoke with Mike Zelek, director of the Chatham County Public Health Department, to find out.

Schools should continue requiring universal masking in counties where there are higher levels of community transmission, per the state health department’s recommendation.

County spread is calculated in two ways, Zelek said, referencing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition: its total new cases per 100,000 people and percentage of positive COVID-19 tests in the last seven days. According to recommendations from the state and CDC, counties with substantial and high transmission should require masking in schools; counties with low and moderate transmission can opt for optional.

In Chatham, the county’s three charter schools also still have indoor mask mandates.

With 94 cases per 100,000 people and 5.3% positivity rate, according to CDC county data on Wednesday, Chatham is an area of substantial transmission. Here is the breakdown for how county transmission levels are determined:

• Low transmission: 0-9.99 cases per 100K, 0-4.99% tests positive

• Moderate transmission: 10-49.99 cases, 5-7.99% positive

• Substantial transmission: 50-99.99 cases, 8-9.9% positive

• High transmission: more than 100 cases, greater than 10%

“When community transmission levels decline in your county to moderate or low levels for at least 7 consecutive days, school leaders can consider making face coverings optional for vaccinated individuals,” the state’s StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit says. “Face coverings should continue to be required for all unvaccinated individuals until community transmission is at low levels, when masks could be optional for everyone. NCDHHS will continue to reevaluate this guidance as all school-aged children become eligible for and get vaccinated.”

Chatham is currently designated as a substantial spread area, acording to CDC metrics, with 94 cases per 100,000 people and a 5.3% positivity rate. / Courtesy of covid.cdc.gov

Children ages 5-11 are now able to get vaccinated, following a Nov. 2 recommendation by the CDC. If children were vaccinated the first weekend they were eligible, they won’t be fully vaccinated until Dec. 11 — six weeks after their first doses.

The winter months coupled with the emergence of the Omicron variant could quickly increase spread.

Zelek said the health department is “keeping a close eye” on the Omicron variant. Last week, scientists in South Africa and Botswana detected a new strain of COVID-19, one with about 50 mutations across its genome, compared to Delta’s less than 20 mutations.

Health officials have detected Omicron in more than a dozen countries across at least five continents since Nov. 24, when it was first reported to the World Health Organization. The variant poses a “very high” risk, the WHO said on Monday.

“While Omicron has some characteristics that are concerning, it is too soon to know what impact it will have globally or locally,” Zelek told the News + Record. “We continue to recommend getting vaccinated and wearing a mask when around others indoors, especially in crowded spaces.”

Health experts believe that existing COVID vaccines will continue to provide protection against the new strain, but it will be one to two weeks before scientists gain more precise data on Omicron based on the tracking current cases.

In Chatham, Zelek said the health department is keeping an eye on COVID spread as we enter the winter months and holiday season, when respiratory viruses tend to spread more. The department is also working to increase vaccination rates, particularly among newly eligible children.

“The more successful we are at reducing the spread of COVID and increasing the rate of vaccinations, the better off we all are and the sooner we can relax certain measures,” Zelek said.

At CCS, the district has phased in free weekly COVID-19 tests to students and staff using rapid results tests administered by Raleigh-based Mako Medical as an additional mitigation strategy. In order to be tested, a parent or guardian must provide a one-time consent for any student under 18, available through the links on the district’s website.

The district is also requiring high school athletic testing, which some parents raised concern over during public comments. CCS Chief Operations Officer Chris Blice said the program is meant to help athletic seasons proceed as normally as possible.

“Our goal is to do COVID testing to protect our student athletes and minimize having to quarantine large groups, and or forfeit games and matches,” he previously said. “Because winter sports are generally played indoors, have large followings from inside and outside of our county, and varying levels of masking, it is especially important to do this.”

What’s next?

The CCS Board of Education meets next Dec. 13, where it will again vote on universal masking. Apart from Hamm, board members seem to want to follow the recommendation of the administration and health department.

“I would ask that the board please allow us to continue with masking at this point to give our families time to take advantage of additional mitigation strategies,” Jackson said in November. “And then we can revisit this again in December and hopefully things have improved to the point where we can begin to move forward — we’re getting there. We’re getting there.”

Jackson declined to comment further on the administration’s upcoming recommendation, but has previously mentioned the importance of working with the local and state health departments to make decisions. Under those metrics, the administration recommending anything other than universal masking while Chatham is still categorized as a “substantial transmission” zone would represent a large departure.

Board Chairperson Gary Leonard told the News + Record the board has been fortunate to receive such clear guidance from the local health department and Duke University’s ABC Science Collaborative. Leonard suggested he would aim to follow the recommendation of administration when it comes to the mask mandate.

“I think as a board member, that’s what I would always say that I would try to do,” he said. “Now when I say that, I think as much as anything, I think the administration is going to try to do what our public health officials are recommending that we do. As a board member, I would think that I would try my best to listen to our public health officials.”

He stressed he is one of five board members.

“We’ve got them in school five days a week,” he said. “We have tried to do it as safely as possible. I’m hoping that we can continue moving forward to help us get rid of any restrictions that we would need, as long as we could do that safely. But I don’t know when that will be.”

Technically, a county could move back and forth from moderate to substantial transmission. Acknowledging that, some N.C. school districts are making masking decisions on a weekly basis.

Zelek said Chatham remains at a substantial level of transmission as we approach colder months and increased travel for the holidays.

“I recognize that the COVID mitigation strategies that have been in place cannot and should not go on forever,” he said. “The key question is how to evolve our approaches in a thoughtful, scientific way. We have done this throughout the pandemic, and it will continue to be important moving forward.”

A previous version of this story did not include the correct date of full vaccination for children who were vaccinated the first week of eligibility. Those children were fully vaccinated on Dec. 11.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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