CCS Board of Education extends universal masking, 4-1, looks toward optional mask policy

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PITTSBORO — The Chatham County Board of Education again voted 4-1 to require universal masking on all CCS campuses at its meeting Monday night — with board member David Hamm again dissenting.

Since September, the board has taken a vote regarding its masking policy each month, in accordance with state law. District administrators and local health officials have long followed public health guidance recommending that mask mandates remain in place until the county’s transmission rates fall below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s suggested levels.

“Case rates are on the rise. We’re back under high community transmission, when I spoke last we were at substantial — so that has been picking up,” Mike Zelek, director of the Chatham County Public Health Department, told the board Monday. “Positivity rate is about twice what it was a month ago — 6% versus 3%, so the reality is we’re trending in the wrong direction. It’s getting colder, it’s winter, it’s the holidays. I’m not trying to cause undue alarm — it’s just where we are right now.”

CCS has followed public health guidance from the beginning of the pandemic, specifically partnering with CCPHD and Duke University’s ABC Science Collaborative — both of which often defer to the CDC and World Health Organization.

According to the CDC and the state health department, schools should continue requiring universal masking in counties where there are higher levels of community transmission.

County spread is calculated in two ways: 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.

With 128 cases per 100,000 people and a 6.37% positivity rate, according to CDC county data on Wednesday, Chatham is an area of high 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%

A few teachers present at the meeting Monday thanked the board during the public comments portion for requiring masks; parents who spoke almost exclusively asked that the district remove its masking policy and make masks optional.

Chief Operations Officer Chris Blice said that even under an optional masking guideline, per state guidance, unvaccinated students are supposed to keep masking. Only when community transmission levels are low — which hasn’t been the case in Chatham since the beginning of the pandemic — should unvaccinated and vaccinated students and staff alike be allowed to not wear a mask.

Blice said other districts with optional mask policies have said that telling who is unvaccinated and then enforcing a mask policy is “impossible.”

Hamm raised questions about the mandate, which he eventually again voted against continuing.

“Yes, time to move on. Some may want to wear their masks the rest of their lives, that’s their choice,” Hamm previously told the News + Record. “For those who don’t, that too should be their choice.”

He said most people who aren’t vaccinated at this point won’t get vaccinated.

“Those are the people who are prolonging this pandemic,” board member Del Turner said in response. “They’re the people who are exacerbating the problem and why we have to continue this mess — they are the reason.”

Following a Nov. 2 recommendation by the CDC, children ages 5-11 are now able to get vaccinated. If children were vaccinated the first weekend they were eligible, they were fully vaccinated Dec. 11 — six weeks after their first doses.

Regardless, the mandatory masking guidance in schools from the state doesn’t depend on vaccination rates in a county but transmission rates.

Blice and Zelek both said that masking also helps prevent excessive quarantines in the event that a student or staff member does test positive for COVID-19. Under the current state policy, students and staff properly wearing a mask around someone also properly wearing a mask do not have have to quarantine if that person later tests positive for COVID.

“I don’t think the current trends warrant a change of course,” Zelek told the board.

“I recognize that the COVID mitigation strategies that have been in place cannot and should not go on forever,” Zelek previously told the News + Record. “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.”

After the motion to continue the mask mandate was passed, Hamm made a motion to remove the requirement for masking among athletics — a point raised during public comments. The motion did not get a second.

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 358 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 well under 1% the entire school year, which has consistently been lower than the transmission rate in Chatham as a whole.

“I’ve said from the beginning, this is not a perfect situation,” Superintendent Anthony Jackson addressed the board. “Our primary core work is teaching and learning, so our role and our focus — the only thing we promised at the start of the school year was to provide a regular routine, we tried very hard to do that.

“If I had my way it’d be over tonight,” Jackson said of the mask mandate. “I don’t have my way. So, Mr. Chair, it is our recommendation that, consistent with state law, we ask the board to continue the universal masking until our next meeting where you might be able to, at that time, adjust your positioning.”

The board meets next for its mid-year retreat on Jan. 10.

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

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