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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, Cabarrus Schools Flip To Mask Mandates To Cope With COVID-19 Surge

Dr. David Rinehart and other physicians urged the Gaston County school board Monday to require masks for all staff and students.
Dr. David Rinehart and other physicians urged the Gaston County school board Monday to require masks for all staff and students.

The Gaston and Cabarrus County school boards reversed themselves Monday night and approved mask mandates. The split votes came after both boards heard about spiking COVID-19 numbers and the likelihood that mask-optional policies would reduce the number of students able to attend in person.

The two boards, which represent about 60,000 students combined, had previously voted to let students and employees decide whether to wear masks inside schools. They weren’t moved by national experts and state health officials calling for universal masking to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But rising cases and the urging of local officials tipped the balance in both districts.

Gaston Numbers Look Grim

In Gaston County, health director Steve Eaton said the county’s vaccination rate is well below the state average, while the delta variant has sent COVID-19 numbers surging since the board's vote for optional masking in late July.

He said 17% of Gaston County's 12- to 17-year-olds are vaccinated, compared with 29% of that age group statewide. In the past 10 days, Gaston County logged 200 cases of COVID-19 in children.

"You can see that Gaston County has experienced an increase in new positives, an increase in school-age positives, and the percentage of school-age children as a percent of total cases is also increasing," Eaton said.

Eaton said the current numbers look worse than the level of community spread going into the 2020 school year. Then, he said, the county had an average daily case count of 41, with five in the school-age range. Now it's 132 cases, with almost 20 in the school-age range.

Several parents and local doctors also urged the Gaston board to require masks. One of them was Dr. David Rinehart, a longtime Belmont family practitioner.

"It’s rampant right now. We’re a forest on fire with this virus right now within this very county," Rinehart said. "This morning our community hospital a few miles from here had 87 patients admitted with COVID, six on ventilators, one of them a dear patient of mine that’s doing poorly."

Quarantines Are Crucial

Members of both boards noted they see few children or adults wearing masks around the community, raising questions about whether requiring them in schools would make a difference.

Cabarrus County Superintendent John Kopicki
Cabarrus County Schools
Cabarrus County Superintendent John Kopicki

For both boards, a major concern was the need to quarantine more students if mask use is inconsistent. State guidelines say if everyone is properly masked, students who are exposed don’t have to quarantine unless they develop symptoms. With high community spread, board members acknowledged students and staff are bound to show up at school infected.

In Cabarrus County, a new superintendent was sworn in just before the special meeting on COVID-19 safety. As his first act, Superintendent John Kopicki asked his board to approve a mandate.

"I think we need to look at the data, which is the evidence in front of us. I think we need to really trust the medical experts, whether we believe in this or not," Kopicki said. "And I think at the end of the day, we’re all talking about the same thing. We’re talking about keeping kids safe."

The Cabarrus board voted 5-2 to require masks for all staff and students. The Gaston board voted 6-3 to do the same. Both boards say they’ll review the numbers at their September meetings in hope that the numbers go down and they can go back to optional masks.

Local Option Leads To Inconsistency

Last year masks were required in schools, but that mandate expired with Gov. Roy Cooper's emergency order July 30. The guidelines now say schools should require masks at all grade levels, but leave it to local boards to make the call.

That has led to a series of emergency meetings around the state, and last-minute changes as school boards respond to public pressure and changing data.

As of Monday night, the (Raleigh) News & Observer reported that 66 districts representing about two-thirds of North Carolina's students will open next week with mask mandates.

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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.