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

Gaston, Iredell Join 'Mask Optional' Ranks Hours After CDC Urges All Wear Masks In Schools

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has books to teach children about social distancing and wearing masks.
Nancy Pierce
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools used books to teach children about social distancing and wearing masks in 2020-21.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its guidance for schools Tuesday, saying everyone should wear masks whether they're vaccinated against COVID-19 or not.

"CDC recommends that everyone in K to 12 schools wear a mask indoors, including teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status," said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.

That comes less than a week after North Carolina health officials gave school districts authority to make their own decisions about face coverings. At that time, the CDC recommended masks only for unvaccinated people in schools.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 13 districts had already declared them optional in all grades, according to a running tally kept by the North Carolina School Boards Association. Tuesday night, about four hours after the CDC announcement, Gaston County Schools became the 14th.

Gaston Public Health Director Steve Eaton urged the board to follow North Carolina's latest recommendation: Mandatory masks for everyone in grades K-8 and for unvaccinated people in high schools. He said four of the county's five metrics have moved into the red zone recently, as the delta variant drives up COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The county's positivity rate is almost 11%, he said, and Gaston has low vaccination rates among the overall population (36%) and youth ages 12-17 (15%).

But board members sided with a parade of parents who couched the question in terms of personal freedom and parental choice.

"If there are parents that want their children to wear the mask, let it be an option," said board member Dot Guthrie. "If there are parents that want their children to arrive in school each day and are willing to support the child not wearing a mask, you have that right as well."

Iredell-Statesville's school board voted unanimously Wednesday morning to make masks optional as well. Boen Nutting, the district's strategic planning chief, said opting not to follow the state's recommendations will likely increase the number of COVID-19 cases and the need for quarantines when students or staff test positive.

"The positives? This is parent choice," she said. "And we've got lots of folks who want to have that parental choice. And we'd have fewer issues with mask compliance situations."

Iredell-Statesville's plan includes limited mandates based on circumstances: If two or more COVID-19 cases are linked to a K-5 classroom, that classroom will be required to wear masks for two weeks. In middle school, "substantial spread" within a grade level could lead to mandatory masking. And if community spread reaches "red level," a districtwide mandate would kick in with board approval.

Guilford Makes Masks Mandatory

The Guilford County school board went the opposite direction, citing the CDC guidance as it voted Tuesday night to make masks mandatory at all levels. Guilford County Schools, the state's third-largest district after Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, will re-evaluate every 10 weeks.

According to a district news release, the county has a 4.7% positivity rate and 29% vaccination rate for 12- to 17-year-olds. The district will require COVID-19 screening tests
"for those who are not vaccinated who also participate in athletics and other high-risk extracurricular activities in which increased exhalation occurs, such as marching band." The district will also ask for and record vaccination status for employees, coaches and students participating in high-risk activities.

Earlier Decisions On Masks

Many of the 13 that had approved mask-optional plans before the CDC announcement are in the Charlotte region, including Union, Cabarrus, Caldwell, Catawba, Lincoln, Cleveland, Rowan-Salisbury and Mooresville.

The association's tally showed that before the CDC announcement only two boards — including Anson County, southeast of Charlotte — had voted to make masks mandatory.

"I don’t know that our teachers want to become the mask police."
Roger Hyatt, chair of the Mooresville School Board

More votes are coming soon. Iredell-Statesville Schools will hold a special meeting at 10 a.m. Wednesday and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools at 9 a.m. Friday.

Still to be seen is whether the new CDC guidance, which is based on new data about the spread of the delta variant, will lead North Carolina to revise its rules or shape local decisions about masks in schools.

North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services says it expected to announce updates based on the CDC report this week, and Gov. Roy Cooper says there will be a Coronavirus Task Force update Thursday.

Boards Caught In High-Pressure Struggle

 Roger Hyatt
Mooresville Graded School District
Roger Hyatt

The state guidelines updated July 21 strongly recommend mandatory masks for students and staff in grades K-8 and for unvaccinated people in high schools. But unlike previous rules, the latest aren't mandatory.

Roger Hyatt, chair of the Mooresville school board, said that puts boards and educators in a difficult position. Districts across the region are being lobbied hard by parents who want to make their own decisions about whether their kids will wear masks — as well as by some who think a mask mandate would make schools safer.

"So we thought that vaccines and masks were important, but when the governor changed his mandate to a recommendation it took a lot of teeth out of our authority to enforce such things," Hyatt said Tuesday. "I don’t know that our teachers want to become the mask police."

The Mooresville board voted unanimously Sunday night to make masks optional. Most schools won't open until the week of Aug. 23, based on the state's school calendar law. But Mooresville is exempt, based on the plan it had in place when the calendar law passed in 2003, and classes will begin Monday.

Is Mask Option Enough Protection?

In Cabarrus County, board member Carolyn Carpenter argued for more time to decide on the district's mask policy. She said she wanted to provide accommodations for people who don't feel safe among unmasked — and possibly unvaccinated — people.

"There are some people that do want the face coverings and we're not giving the separate accommodations for those," she said.

But board Chair Holly Grimsley said the option provides enough protection.

"That's why we're making it optional," she said. "So for those who choose to wear it, or want their children to wear it, they will. And teachers, and staff and anybody else that feels it's necessary will. And those that do not will not have to."

But health officials have consistently said masks aren't primarily about protecting the wearer, but about protecting the people in the room with the wearer. Dr. Meg Sullivan, medical director for Mecklenburg County Public Health, said Tuesday that studies showing low transmission of COVID-19 in schools are based on everyone wearing masks.

"We have really good data that masks work, but a lot of that data is based on universal masking policies," she said, adding that it's important "to recognize the role of masking in protecting the individual but also protecting those that are around them. I think that's where some of the arguments for universal masking really come into play."

Children under 12 still aren't eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. In Anson County, the decision to require masks at all grade levels was based partly on the local health department's reliance on the Moderna vaccine, which isn't approved for people under 18.

WFAE's Claire Donnelly contributed to reporting this story.

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Updated: July 27, 2021 at 7:43 PM EDT
Updated 7:40 p.m. July 27 to reflect the Gaston County school board's decision; at 8:45 a.m. July 28 to reflect Guilford County's vote and at 10:50 a.m. July 28 to reflect the Iredell-Statesville board's vote.
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.