In contentious 3-2 vote, CCS set for optional indoor masking in March

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PITTSBORO — In a contentious 3-2 vote Monday night, the Chatham County Schools Board of Education began a gradual transition to optional masking “on or about March 7,” dependent on the community transmission metrics set by the state health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Board members Del Turner and David Hamm voted against the shift — with Turner saying March 7 was too soon and Hamm saying it wasn’t soon enough. The board also unanimously voted to make masks optional for athletes and spectators, effective the next day. 

“We believe we came up with a balanced approach to move this forward,” CCS Superintendent Anthony Jackson told the board regarding the district’s proposed roadmap to optional masking. “We believe that with the support of our public health officials, we can manage this. We believe that given the appropriate structures, we can continue to do what we’re doing.

“The only caveat I will put out there is that if the data begins to go back up,” he said, “We may have to come back to you and ask for a reversal.”

Under the approved roadmap, masks are optional for athletes and spectators beginning Tuesday. On Feb. 21, changes made to the K-12 StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit will go into effect — ending individual contact tracing in schools and not requiring asymptomatic people with COVID exposures to stay home from school. “On or about” March 7, the first Monday of the month, the district will move to a mask-optional policy — encouraging and providing vaccination opportunities before then — so long as COVID numbers keep trending down following the Omicron surge. 

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 CDC’s suggested levels, which are also included in the state health toolkit. 

Under that guidance, a school district can move to optional masking when community transmission levels decline to moderate or low levels of community transmission and remain there for seven consecutive days — something Jackson anticipates occurring by the proposed March timeframe.

“We’re hopeful that this makes it work,” Jackson said of the plan.

‘Keeping kids in the classroom’

A dozen community members passionately advocated for optional masking during the meeting’s public comments portion, which board members voted to extend past the typical 30-minute period due to the number of people signed up to speak.

Board policies allow each speaker three minutes to talk; 16 people signed up to speak Monday. Led primarily by moms of students, those against the mask mandate cited social and emotional harm to children, difficulty breathing — several speakers seeming to allude to the “I Can’t Breathe” refrain used to protest police brutality following George Floyd’s murder — and the “handicapping of our children” due to required mask wearing.

Most speakers on Monday were white — reflecting national trends regarding mostly white anti-mask protests. (A July Rand Corp. survey found that two-thirds or more of Black, Hispanic and Asian parents said they needed school mask mandates to feel safe sending their children to school, compared to a third of white parents.)

“In the past year and a half, I’ve witnessed the disconnect in out-of-touch views of the board members, and I’ve heard parents and students’ voices marginalized,” CCS parent Jessica Winger said before announcing an intended run for the Board of Education this year. “I will be the family’s voices at these board meetings. I will represent the diverse views. I will listen to you and try to bring those voices to these meetings instead of marginalizing them.” 

Of the 16 speakers, just three advocated for keeping the mask mandate — including UNC epidemiology professor and CCS parent Justin Lessler, and Northwood teachers Eliza Brinkley and Rachel Donald. Former Republican county comomissioner Walter Petty, who announced an intended campaign for House District 54, was also present and spoke in favor of a mask-optional policy.

CDC studies included in the state’s toolkit indicate “no clear evidence that masking impairs emotional or language development in children,” or adverse cardiovascular effects or respiratory distress, “except for intense exercise.” Still, even the district’s most ardent masks-in-schools supporters — Chatham County Public Health Director Mike Zelek among them — have long said the negatives of masking need to be weighed with the protection they offer.

“To the point to about Omicron being less severe — that is good news,” Zelek addressed the board Monday. “That doesn’t mean it’s a joke.”

As highly transmissible as Omicron is, Zelek pointed out that even with less severe cases, the numerator of severe cases is still significant with such a large denominator of infected people. Additionally, some people — including children — have experienced long COVID, even after mild initial cases.

“And I think for our decisions, we’re talking about keeping kids in the classroom as safely as possible,” Zelek added. “I think the school folks may acknowledge that Omicron presented some disruptions to in-person learning that we hadn’t in previous stages of a pandemic, just because of how much illness was out there. That’s what we’re trying to avoid with this.”

Members Turner and Hamm — who have sparred over masking at recent meetings — joined together as the two dissenters to the optional masking plan, though for opposite reasons. Turner said March 7 was too soon; Hamm, who has voted against extending universal masking at the last three board meetings, voted no to the plan due to what he characterized as the district’s inconsistency. 

“I would like to point out that from the beginning, this board’s lockstep followed the CDC and North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services… and now they say that quarantine would be lifted up on February 21,” Hamm said. “Other school systems followed suit, to say that’s an opportunity to get a mask optional. I really wonder why we’re not going to follow their guidance, when that’s what we’ve been doing for the last two years.”

Under the updated state health department guidance cited by Hamm, schools no longer need to enforce quarantines for students exposed to COVID who are asymptomatic, beginning Feb. 21. While some N.C. school districts have used that update to implement mask optional policies, the state health department still recommends schools require universal masking in counties with higher levels of community transmission.

With 352 cases per 100,000 people and a 13.5% positivity rate, according to CDC county data on Tuesday, Chatham is an area of high transmission — though much lower than last month, when Omicron peaked. 

Following the board’s January meeting, there were 1,039.34 cases per 100,000 people and a 21.82% positive rate, with 10 new hospitalizations in that last week.

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%

Previously, districts could move to optional masking only when a county is an area of low transmission, but that standard was updated to include areas with moderate transmission as well.

At December’s meeting, Chatham was in the moderate category for percentage of positive tests — 6.37% — but with 128 cases per 100,000 people, considered an area of high community transmission.

CCS administration has long cited masking as the most important tool for keeping students in the classroom by mitigating case transmission within school buildings. There have been 1,182 cases among students and staff since the first day of school, and just three clusters, according to the district’s COVID dashboard on Tuesday.

“Numbers have been trending in the right direction,” said Board Chairperson Gary Leonard. “We believe as more people have gotten vaccinated and their boosters, as well as nearing the end of winter, we can provide our staff and students with the choice of whether they want to wear a mask or not.”

The board meets next March 14, at which time the roadmap plan says members can “make adjustments as necessary” regarding COVID data. A specially called meeting will take place before then to look at the county’s data in relation to the intended mask-optional move.

Other meeting business

• Board members approved a Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund Grant application with the county’s government for the $12.9 million replacement of three gymnasiums at Bennett, Bonlee and Silk Hope schools — a project the board voted to pursue at its January meeting.

If approved, the needs-based grant will provide 85% of the funds needed to replace the three gymnasiums, with the remaining 15% to be funded through the Chatham County Capital Improvements Program.

• Students approved to stay at Northwood High School instead of attending Seaforth High School can stay at Northwood through the end of the grade span if they choose, the BOE voted, extending its December 2020 enrollment continuation decision.

The board also approved modifications to the Seaforth attendance zone, following the August purchase by Briar Chapel developers of additional land to creat an entrance/exit from the neighborhood to Andrews Store Road. 

That area, on the northern side of Andrews Store, and the adjoining area located to the east of the new parcel, was redistricted from the Northwood attendance zone to Seaforth’s.

• The purchase of a six-classroom pod to replace the destroyed five individual modular classroom units at North Chatham Elementary School in November was approved by the board, with an anticipated $231,060 funds needed after insurance. Those funds would use existing district fund balance dollars.

• The board voted to accept a $12,386 bid for a one-acre parcel of land in southern Chatham off of 15-501 that was gifted to the district many years ago to construct a one-room school house. The district learned of the property last year, but said its too small to be of any use at this point. A neighboring landowner presented the bid.

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