PITTSBORO — A specially called Chatham County Schools Board of Education meeting on Thursday began with a 15-parent protest to make masks optional and ended with a 4-0 vote to require universal indoor masking on all campuses, as recommended by administration.
Masking in outdoor spaces will be optional, the district said. Classes at CCS begin Aug. 23.
“We can’t give them normal, but our goal is to give them at least a routine,” Superintendent Anthony Jackson said at the beginning of the meeting regarding the administration’s recommendations. “Just by masking we can go to some level of normalization … or at least a routine that’s predictable.”
As a part of the same motion, the board voted for schools to operate on an in-person, 5-day week schedule in the fall and to continue working with the Chatham County Public Health Dept. to publicize and offer vaccination clinics for any unvaccinated people. Board members Gary Leonard, Del Turner and David Hamm attended the meeting in person, while Melissa Hlavac joined in by phone; Board member Jane Allen Wilson could not attend. Hamm began the meeting by calling in, but was present for the majority of the meeting in-person, including the vote.
“In early summer, case trends were trending in the right direction,” CCPHD Director Mike Zelek said to start the meeting.
Now, Zelek said, cases in Chatham — reflecting trends across the state — have seen an uptick amid the spread of the more contagious Delta variant, with about 9.5% of tests in the county coming back positive. Following national and state guidance for universal masking in schools, Zelek said he reiterated that masking recommendation.
“All of us align in our recommendation for universal masking across all grades,” Zelek said. “If we do that, we’ll have lower risk of transmission and lower risk of quarantine, allowing our in-school classes to function — I believe masking is a key part of that.”
Under the new state guidance, if a student tests positive for COVID-19 but was masked, schools will not have to enforce a two-week quarantine period for students potentially exposed to that student — so long as those students were also masked.
Assistant Superintendent for Operations Chris Blice said the main difference in that updated guidance is that local school districts are responsible for implementing and requiring recommended protocols, not the state.
“But in doing so, their focus is that we work with the experts,” Blice said, adding that the district had done that, by partnering with CCPHD and research group ABC Science Collaborative. “The toolkit is very clear: it very strongly recommends universal masking, K-12.”
The board also voted to extend the district’s enrollment period for K-12 virtual academies through Aug. 8, as directed by administration. The K-8 academy previously closed July 30; the high school academy closed June 15.
Called Monday evening, Thursday’s meeting follows Gov. Roy Cooper’s July 29 announcement last week that the state had updated its K-12 StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit to reflect the CDC’s July 27 guidance, which urges schools to require universal masking, regardless of vaccination status.
Previously, the state had recommended — but not mandated, as before — that K-8 schools require universal masking while high schools ensure masking for unvaccinated students and staff.
By Thursday’s meeting, the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, N.C. Health Dept., CCPHD and ABC Science Collaborative all recommended universal masking in schools.
In Chatham, Zelek said 10% of the under-18 population is fully vaccinated at this time. Only the Pfizer vaccine is available to people who are 12 or older; Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are only approved for people 18 and older.
The state’s guidance — which the district said it is following — also says all schools should require passengers and staff to wear a mask on buses and other group school transportation. Additionally, it continues recommendations from last semester to ensure 3-feet of social distancing as an additional mitigation strategy.
At the board’s July meeting, it unanimously approved a motion lifting the suspension of field trips, after-school activities, facility rentals, and school access for visitors and volunteers. Those suspensions were put in place in spring 2020 in response to COVID-19. On Thursday, Jackson stressed that face masking would allow such activities to continue.
Because Thursday’s meeting was specially called, it did not include public comments. At the board’s July meeting, several parents asked the school board to make mask-wearing optional for CCS students next fall.
“Our children need to get unmasked, OK, if not, if you do not unmask our children, you better come up with some money to help provide for them in the future for their social, emotional and mental stress that they’re going to have in the future,” said one speaker, Edie Jacomet, “because they will — they will, mark my words, so I’m just asking you, please unmask our children.”
At the time of the meeting Thursday, at least 48 school districts defied state masking guidance, opting instead to make masking optional in schools. That number has since climbed to about half of the state’s 115 districts, with at least 54 districts deciding to require masking as of Tuesday afternoon. Earlier last week, Wake County Schools and Chapel-Hill Carrboro City Schools voted to require universal masking.
While COVID-19 data suggests young children are less likely to get COVID-19 and to spread it, epidemiologists have long cited mask-wearing as an essential protection against spread of infection among unvaccinated people. Data also suggests the Delta variant is more contagious than other strains, for all age groups.
“We believe this is prudent, we believe this is defensible, we believe that this makes sense right now for our kids, and could help us have as close to a normal school year as we possibly can,” Jackson said of the district’s recommendation. “... We're confident that we can at least get school started — support our staff, give our teachers a safe place, give our kids as normal a place as possible, with the exception of one thing: they will have to wear a face covering.”
Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect that though Board Member David Hamm called in by phone at the beginning of the meeting, he was in-person for the majority of the meeting, including the vote.
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