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NC School Districts Weigh Safety, Choice As They Decide On Mask Policies

A Bess Elementary student works on an art project while wearing a face covering.
Ann Doss Helms
A student at Gaston County's Bess Elementary School works on an art project while wearing a face covering in October 2020.

School starts in three weeks for most students in North Carolina, and districts in the Charlotte region have approved a hodgepodge of mask policies that are likely to keep changing.

Most of those policies were approved in a two-week stretch that felt a lot like the summer of 2020. With COVID-19 cases rising, federal, state and local officials issued a rapidly changing series of orders and guidance. Local school boards held emergency meetings. Parents, teachers and community members argued over safety plans.

Last year the question was whether students could safely attend in-person classes. This year the question isn’t whether, but how.

"One thing that’s so important when we’re talking about schools is in-person learning. We know we need to have those children in the classroom," Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday. He was fielding questions after he issued his second revision to school mask rules in two weeks.

On July 21 he announced that the school mask mandate would end July 30. Last week, after seeing new advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he urged school districts to require masks for all students and employees, regardless of vaccination status.

"We know from the data and research that if we take these steps to protect them, like having masks, that the transmission would be low in our schools, and our children could be protected," he said.

No Mandate Means Local Pressure

But Cooper didn’t order districts to require masks. About 20 school districts had already announced plans to make masks optional for students and staff. That includes all the counties immediately surrounding Mecklenburg.

Mooresville school board Chair Roger Hyatt said Cooper’s decision to drop the state mandate shaped his board’s vote to make masks optional.

"We thought that vaccines and masks were important," Hyatt said,"but when the governor changed his mandate to a recommendation, it took a lot of teeth out of our authority to enforce such things."

South Carolina, meanwhile, has ordered local districts not to require masks. It’s one of eight states banning mask mandates, with another 10 states requiring masks in all schools, according to a Forbes magazine tally.

In North Carolina, local school boards are caught between public health officials who say masks are essential to keeping schools open and parents who demand the right to choose for their own children.

Universal Masking Can Avert Quarantines

The state’s latest school quarantine rules say consistent mask use can protect staff and students from quarantine regardless of their vaccination status. Boen Nutting, a top administrator in Iredell-Statesville Schools, explained to her board how important that can be for keeping kids in school.

"If you have on a mask and you’re exposed to someone who has COVID you won’t have to quarantine," she said. "But if you don’t have on that mask then we’re back to that whole quarantine rule, which, you know, I think at some of our highest points we were quarantining as many as 400 people a week."

That’s 400 people a week in a district with about 20,000 students.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is about seven times that size. For leaders there, the chance to stabilize classrooms by requiring masks outweighed the unpleasantness of having to wear them again this year.

"We are protecting everyone by wearing the mask because right now everyone is not vaccinated," said Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Lenora Shipp, who was part of the 8-1 majority that approved a mask mandate Friday.

Calls For Parental Choice Shape Decisions

But the Iredell-Statesville school board voted unanimously to leave masking decisions up to their employees and families, even after hearing that masks could help keep kids in classrooms. So did the boards in Union, Gaston, Cabarrus, Lincoln, Cleveland and Catawba counties.

Across the region, school boards have heard from people who oppose mask mandates. Those opponents have questioned the effectiveness of masks in classrooms, complained that masks have negative emotional and physical effects on kids and called for personal freedom and parental choice.

"No more masks. No more mandates. Free our children and give the parents the ability to choose what is best for their kids," Shannon Williams of Mount Holly told the Gaston County school board last week.

Michael Crisp of Stanley reminded Gaston’s board members that local voters put them in office.

"You represent the voice of the people in your district," he said. "The majority of citizens in Gaston County are against this board requiring students to wear masks during school hours."

Is Mask Option Enough Protection?

Sierra Hall, who has a child in school in Belmont, was among a smaller group who told the Gaston board she’s willing to make her child wear a mask to keep everyone safer.

"The delta variant is easily spread and this will accelerate the pandemic," she said. "If this is the case, we have to believe science, not ignore it in hopes that it will go away."

Some speakers and school board members say a mask-optional policy offers protection for those who want it.

For instance, Cabarrus County school board Chair Holly Grimsley told another board member there was no need to provide separate accommodations for parents who don't want their children exposed to unmasked classmates.

"We are making it optional," Grimsley said. "So for those who choose to wear it, or want their children to wear it, they will."

Right now there is no data on COVID-19 spread in schools where some people are vaccinated and others are not, and where masks are a matter of personal choice. But health officials have consistently said that masks are not just to protect the wearer, but to protect others around them from breathing droplets if they’re infected.

That’s why Mecklenburg County's health department advised CMS to make everyone cover their faces. And CMS board members say dozens of pediatricians contacted them supporting the mask mandate.

"It's been probably over 100 pediatricians that I have heard from that said, 'Please, please mask students. We want them to stay in school. That is best the place for them,'" said board member Margaret Marshall.

Risk Of Losing Students Plays In

There’s another factor creating pressure for local school boards: Unhappy families can always opt out of public schools. Most North Carolina school districts saw enrollment drop substantially last school year. Because of the pandemic, the state didn’t penalize districts. But if the losses persist, lower enrollment could mean lost teacher jobs and maybe even school closings.

Nutting, the Iredell-Statesville administrator, acknowledged that would be a drawback to requiring masks.

"There’d be a lot of kids that probably would say, 'Well, I’m not going to go to the Iredell-Statesville Schools because you’re going to make me wear a mask.' So we have less children in school buildings and that certainly is a negative," Nutting said.

Jeff Ramsey, chair of the Gaston County school board, also referred to parent options just before his board approved a mask-optional policy.

"We know people have a lot of options out there," he said. "... So I believe in the choice that parents would choose, optional for masks. Y’all know ‘em a lot better than we do."

Inconsistency And Confusion Remains

As of Friday afternoon, the North Carolina School Boards Association had tallied 27 school districts that have declared masks optional and 10 that will require masks. The state has 115 districts, so most are still figuring things out.

Executive Director Leanne Winner says the one trend that’s emerging is "the larger urban counties are requiring it. You’ve got Durham, Cumberland, Winston Salem-Forsyth, Guilford."

And, of course, there's CMS, the state’s second-largest district. Wake, the largest, hasn’t decided yet.

Regardless of what each district decides about masks, everyone will have to mask up on school buses. That’s a federal requirement.

The state no longer requires masks outdoors, but Anson County southeast of Charlotte voted to require them outside and inside.

At this point, no one’s checking vaccination status for employees or students. The daily symptom screenings and temperature checks from last year will be gone. And there’s no more state requirement to offer remote learning. While most Charlotte-area districts offer a remote academy for families that want to keep their kids learning from home full time, educators and parents may find themselves scrambling to cover material during quarantines.

At high school sports events, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association says the home team’s masking policies prevail.

Concerns About Mask Confrontations

In mask-optional districts, expect to see a mix of masked and unmasked faces. Some officials worry that the rancor that has marked adult debates over masks could spill into schools. Iredell-Statesville included an anti-bullying clause in its mask-optional policy: "Harassment, discrimination, bullying or retaliation based on any person’s decision to wear or not wear a mask is prohibited and will not be accepted."

Cooper said last week he hopes mask-optional districts will reconsider.

Grimsley, the Cabarrus County board chair, said masks will be up for discussion at Monday's board meeting. She says she doubts there will be a change in philosophy.

"We really want as much as we can to send our kids back to school with an option. You know, we feel like that really addresses both sides," she said Friday.

But Grimsley said she’s aware that cases are on the rise.

Regardless of their masking policies, one thing is consistent for all districts: They’re going to be watching the numbers, hoping things get better and worried that they’ll get worse.

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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.