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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

North Carolina Updates School Mask Rules After Union County Officials Complain Of Discrepancy

Masked students at Union County's Wesley Chapel Elementary School in August.
Ann Doss Helms
Masked students at Union County's Wesley Chapel Elementary School in August.

North Carolina health and education officials revised the state's COVID-19 rules for schools Wednesday, after Union County school board members complained they were out of step with the governor's orders.

Gov. Roy Cooper ended North Carolina’s outdoor mask mandate last week, but as of Tuesday, the Strong Schools NC "toolkit" still required students to wear masks outside unless everyone stays 6 feet apart.

That created tension and frustration at Tuesday night's Union County school board meeting.

Union County board members and staff said state law is clear: If a school district violates those rules, it could be held liable for students or staff contracting COVID-19. That sparked outrage from board member Gary Sides.

"The governor said no mask requirement outdoors. He said it," Sides said. "But some bozo in Raleigh hasn’t updated a website to give us, to let us off the hook to be able to do it."

Chair Melissa Merrell said she had hoped to clear athletes to remove their masks for weekend events, but the state law tying legal immunity to the online school rules means districts are "held hostage."

At the start of the meeting, half a dozen parents urged the board to defy Cooper by eliminating the mask requirement inside classes.

"In other parts of the country and the world, we can see abundant real-world evidence that unmasked teachers and their kids are safe," said Richard Daunt. "Union County teachers have all had the chance to be vaccinated if they wish. Deaths and hospitalizations have been dropping for months. Are we allergic to good news? I'll take all those masked faces as a yes."

Board members didn't pursue that suggestion, but board member Jimmy Bention Sr. made a motion to allow students to go maskless outside right away.

"Just for the outside activity," he said, "when little Johnny and little Sally are running around outside playing."

Board member John Kirkpatrick IV argued for patience, saying COVID-19 has struck his family and his church, and people are still getting sick.

"Why can we not just finish this school year out? Let these kids keep these masks on. Let us be safe," Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick said he doesn’t like masks either, but that’s not the most important question.

"You better believe people are dying," Kirkpatrick said. "And I don’t want nobody to die on my watch."

Bention’s motion failed, with Sides reluctantly casting the deciding vote based on legal liability.

Assistant Superintendent Jarrod McCraw said he'd taken part in a webinar with state health and education officials Tuesday morning. They said an update to the school rules is coming, but it could take until the end of this week, McCraw said.

Wednesday morning the old rules remained in place, but by early afternoon they had been updated to remove the 6-foot distancing requirement and say that face coverings are not required for recess and outdoor classes.

Union County officials said Tuesday they'd lift the district's outdoor mask requirement as soon as the site was updated.

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Updated: May 5, 2021 at 1:35 PM EDT
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.