PITTSBORO — The Chatham County Board of Education again voted to require universal masking on all CCS campuses at its meeting Monday night — but not unanimously this time, with board member David Hamm dissenting.
Since September, the board has taken a vote regarding its masking policy each month, in accordance with state law. On Monday, Superintendent Anthony Jackson asked the board to reaffirm the district’s universal masking policy to keep students in the classroom.
“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. “And so with that, 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.”
During the public comments portion of the meeting, parents present 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. During his meeting presentation, Assistant Superintendent for Operations Chris Blice pointed to universal masking as the reason for the district’s low transmission rate — well under 1% the entire school year, which is lower than the transmission rate in the county as a whole.
Mike Zelek, director of the Chatham County Public Health Department, told the board that schools should continue requiring universal masking in counties where there are higher substantial levels of community transmission, which is the state health department’s recommendation. With around 60 positive cases per 100,000 people, according to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Chatham is still experiencing “substantial community transmission,” though Zelek stressed the county shouldn’t forget all the progress made in recent months.
Children ages 5-11 are now able to get vaccinated, following a recommendation by the CDC last week. As an additional mitigation strategy, the district has phased in free weekly COVID-19 tests to students and staff using rapid results tests administered by Raleigh-based Mako Medical. 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. 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 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.”
There have been 266 cumulative cases of COVID-19 reported to Chatham County Schools since Aug. 23 and two clusters, according to the district’s case dashboard on Wednesday, making up 2.5% of the district’s total population. There is one active case.
“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. “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.”
The board approved the district’s remote learning and virtual learning plans as presented, which were submitted to the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction Sept. 28, and are required by state law. The purpose of the remote instruction plan is to provide the state with an overview of how CCS would utilize remote instruction during the 2021-2022 school year. CCS can utilize remote instruction for up to five days in the event of inclement weather or other calendar needs, the district agenda said.
Board members also approved CCS’s 2021-2022 School Improvement Plans as presented, which includes specific indicators for improvement in the district as a whole and at each school; the new $8 million employees supplement plan; the 2023-29 Capital Improvements Program projects funded by the county, such as the new central services building, and the addition of a head coaching stipend for girls and boys Winter Track at CCS high schools.
Both teams will now include an $800 base stipend with a $50 experience step.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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