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

Mecklenburg Health Director Urges CMS To Require Masks In Schools

Nancy Pierce
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Mecklenburg County’s top health official is recommending that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools require masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when classes start next month.

Health Director Gibbie Harris says she has advised CMS leaders to require masks inside school buildings. The school board meets at 9 a.m. Friday to decide how to handle face coverings.

"One of the main things we want to be focused on is our children being able to stay in school as much as possible," Harris said. "And having masks worn in the school is going to increase the likelihood that children are not going to have to be sent home to quarantine because they’ve potentially been exposed.”

CMS Board Chair Elyse Dashew said Wednesday evening that she had not yet heard from Superintendent Earnest Winston, but said the board would be ready to make its recommendations and take a vote Friday morning.

This comes one day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that everyone in K through 12 schools wear a mask indoors — and one day before North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to update the state's COVID-19 rules and recommendations.

Last week, Cooper launched a flurry of "mask optional" school board votes when he announced he wouldn't extend the state's mask mandate past July 30. The new state guidelines recommend masks for everyone in grades K-8, where most students are too young for vaccines, and for unvaccinated people in grades 9-12.

So far, about 20 North Carolina districts have declared masks optional in all grades, according to a running tally kept by the North Carolina School Boards Association. That includes Gaston County and Iredell-Statesville Schools, where boards unanimously voted to leave the decision to staff and parents after Tuesday's CDC announcement.

About five districts have voted for mandatory masks. That includes Anson County, a small district near Charlotte, and Guilford County, the state's third-largest district.

Health officials and school district administrators say the best shot of avoiding the spread of COVID-19, quarantines and even school closings is for everyone to wear masks.

Boen Nutting, strategic planning chief for Iredell-Statesville Schools, told the board a mask-optional approach has significant drawbacks.

"The negatives: We will probably need to quarantine a greater number of people," she said. "Potential to cause more classroom and school closures, potential spread, potential illness, and we may need to institute remote learning for those that are quarantined."

But board after board has sided with parents and community members who say parents should be the ones to decide whether their children wear masks in school.

"Mandating these masks takes my right to choose what is best for my child away, and I refuse to let that happen," Jessica Higgins of Dallas told the Gaston school board Tuesday night.

The delta variant is creating a surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the country. North Carolina on Thursday reported 2,633 new coronavirus cases and 10.8% positivity. Currently, 1,091 people are hospitalized for COVID-19 in the state — up from 384 just a month ago.

Cooper has scheduled an update on the state's pandemic plans for 3 p.m. Thursday.

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Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.
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.