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List Of Mask-Optional School Districts Grows In The Charlotte Region

 Caldwell County kindergartener Ty Stewart modeled his dinosaur mask during the 2020-21 school year.
Caldwell County Schools
Caldwell County Schools
Caldwell County kindergartener Ty Stewart modeled his dinosaur mask during the 2020-21 school year.

Updated July 27, 9:40 a.m.

Cabarrus, Catawba and Caldwell County schools Monday joined a growing list of school districts declaring masks optional when students return in August, despite rising cases of COVID-19.

Union County, Rowan-Salisbury and Mooresville city schools have also announced it will be up to staff and students to decide whether to cover their faces inside schools.

Last week state health officials updated North Carolina's school safety guidelines to say masks should be mandatory in K-8 schools, where most students are too young to be vaccinated. The state urges unvaccinated people to wear masks in high schools as well.

The Cabarrus school board split 5-2 at a special board meeting. Members Carolyn Carpenter and Keshia Sandidge said they wanted to wait until next week's regular meeting to get more information about how the delta variant is driving up cases and how the district can respond.

Carpenter noted that Cabarrus County's positivity rate on COVID-19 tests is at 7.8% and the district's metrics call for a possible return to virtual classes at 10%.

"We don’t want to go back and forth. That’s not good for anybody," Carpenter said. "Our children need to be where they can be in the classroom and I think we all agree to that."

Board member Laura Blackwell got audience applause when she called for an immediate decision.

"I absolutely think it should be a parent’s choice whether or not you are wanting to mask your children," said Blackwell. "I would never vote for it to be mandatory."

Caldwell Vote Is Unanimous

The Caldwell board unanimously approved a mask-optional plan.

“Since the governor made his recommendations for the return of school, I have had many notifications from Caldwell County citizens,” said Board member Duane Knight. “I have read them all and what I have found is that 9 out of 10 want the students to return with a choice. This is a school system of choice.”

Less than a month before classes begin, district leaders around the state are trying to weigh public pressure to let families make their own decisions against rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in unvaccinated people. They're also looking at conflicting guidance from experts: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends mandatory masks at all grade levels, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention simply urges all unvaccinated people to wear masks inside schools.

Catawba County Schools also posted Monday night that its board had voted to make masks optional.

The Mooresville school board voted to make face coverings optional for staff and students in a special meeting Sunday.

In a news release posted Monday, Mooresville Graded School District officials say they concluded that "the ability to enforce masking is difficult and could also pose a disruption to learning." The statement says if the situation changes, masks could be mandated "either district wide, school specific, or for an individual classroom, depending on the situation, until the heightened danger passes and/or numbers show a decline."

Anson County Bucks Trend

The Anson County school board voted 8-1 Monday to make masks mandatory in all grade levels — not only inside, as the state recommends for K-12, but outdoors.

Board members cited a 33% vaccination rate and the fact that the county health department only has access to the Moderna vaccine, which hasn't been approved for people younger than 18. To get the Pfizer-BioNTech shots, which are approved for 12 and up, people have to go to pharmacies.

More Special Meetings Coming

The Gaston board will hold a special meeting on COVID-19 safety plans at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools called a special board meeting on masking requirements for 9 a.m. Friday.

Iredell-Statesville Schools plans to announce its plans later this week, a spokesperson says.

Most districts plan to bring students back for in-person classes the week of Aug. 23, in compliance with the state's school calendar law. Mooresville, which got an exemption based on the calendar it had in place when the state law passed in 2003, will start back Aug. 2.

Greg Collard contributed to reporting this story.

Updated: July 26, 2021 at 7:48 PM EDT
Updated July 26 and July 27 to include votes in Cabarrus, Caldwell, Anson and Catawba counties.
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.