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

Monroe Charter School Mandates Masks After Week Of Opt-Outs Brings COVID-19 Cases

A Union County charter school decided to enforce a mask mandate Monday after one week of classes with unmasked students brought 14 COVID-19 cases and led to more than 150 students and staff members being quarantined.

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Union Academy is a K-12 charter school with a year-round calendar and almost 2,000 students. Classes began July 26. Head of School John Marshall says masks were technically mandatory, but parent requests for exemptions were approved without question.

"I knew there'd be a lot, but I didn't know we'd have nearly half of our families, nearly half of our students would file for an exemption," Marshall said Monday.

As of Monday, one week into the school year, the school has logged 14 cases of COVID-19 and quarantined more than 150 students and staff. Based on that — and on new state and federal guidance urging universal masking in schools — the school’s board voted Saturday to end the easy opt-out and require masks. Students must now have a doctor's note to get an exemption.

Under current state rules, universal masking can reduce the need for quarantines. People who are vaccinated or who have consistently worn masks, regardless of vaccination status, don't have to quarantine after COVID-19 exposure unless they develop symptoms.

"Nobody likes a mask," Marshall said. "We just decided it was more important — far more important — for kids to be in school than to accommodate the request of students and parents (not) to have to wear a yucky mask."

Smooth Transition Or Chaos?

Marshall says Monday's transition went well. "We have had no students refuse to wear masks, so we’ve not had to send anybody home or ask anybody to be picked up," he said.

Deb Helms, the mother of a Union Academy first-grader, takes issue with that description. She says her daughter developed nosebleeds while wearing a mask in kindergarten so spent most of last year in remote classes. She got an exemption for her daughter this year, and says the notice that those exemptions wouldn’t be honored went to parents around 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

"And that gave the parents no time to make any plans, to make any accommodations. And it has caused absolute, complete chaos today," Helms said Monday.

She says she and dozens of other parents kept their children home Monday, and will continue doing so until they can get doctor’s appointments. Others hit obstacles when they arrived at school, Helms said.

"Some of those parents had to go pick their child up at school this morning. Some of the parents showed up to walk their children in and they were turned away," she said.

Helms said she’s not afraid of her daughter being exposed to COVID-19 and believes all families should continue to make their own decisions. And she noted that charter school funding depends on the number of parents who choose to send their children there.

"So if we can’t get everything worked out for her to continue her education at Union Academy, then we are going to have no choice but to remove her from Union Academy and sign her up in the public school system," Helms said.

Others Are Watching Numbers

But Union County and other districts that have said masks will be optional are also watching the community spread numbers to judge whether it will be safe to continue with those plans.

The Union County board is scheduled to get an update Tuesday night and the Cabarrus County school board is doing so Monday night.

So far about a dozen North Carolina school boards have voted to make masks mandatory, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Anson County schools. More than 25 have made them optional, including most of the others in the Charlotte region, according to a tally by the North Carolina School Boards Association.

Most students will return to North Carolina public schools the week of Aug. 23 because of the state's school calendar law. Charter schools have more flexibility.

Mooresville Graded Schools, a small district in Iredell County, started classes Monday with a mask-optional plan. Spokeswoman Tanae McLean says that could change later this week, when the state updates its COVID-19 alert ratings. So far most counties in the region are in the yellow zone, but a move to orange or red could trigger tighter restrictions.

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Updated: August 2, 2021 at 5:59 PM EDT