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As School Safety Plans For COVID-19 Evolve, Here's What To Know About NC Back-To-School Week

 Students and teachers could go unmasked at Mooresville High School for four days. After that, with cases cropping up, the district required masks on Aug. 6.
Ann Doss Helms
Students and teachers could go unmasked at Mooresville High School for four days. After that, with cases cropping up, the district required masks on Aug. 6.

Once again, controversy and change related to COVID-19 mark the back-to-school season in North Carolina.

Last year it was in-person vs. remote classes. This year it's mask mandates vs. individual choice — with the bigger question being how to keep everyone healthy and in class while coronavirus cases rise across the Charlotte region.

With most districts bringing students back Aug. 23, the Gaston and Cabarrus County school boards reversed their mask-optional decisions Monday with just one week to spare, and Lincoln County Schools instituted a mask mandate Wednesday. The Union County board has called an emergency meeting for Wednesday night to revisit its COVID-19 safety plans.

Keeping track of the ever-changing mask rules in North Carolina is an ongoing challenge for journalists and the North Carolina School Boards Association.

South Carolina's schools opened this week, with mask mandates prohibited by state law. Some districts have defied that ban, saying they must require masks to keep their students safe.

While plans keep changing, here's what families need to know to make sense of the back-to-school season.

Why So Controversial?

After last year's remote and hybrid classes, a national consensus emerged that the benefits of in-person classes outweigh the risks. And national, state and Charlotte-area health officials agree that universal mask use is the best way to make that safe.

But when North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper decided to let his emergency order lapse, that pushed the decisions about masks to local school boards. And they're getting a lot of public pressure.

Throughout the summer, board members across the region have been deluged by emails and public comments from people who oppose mask mandates.

"While you’re considering whether our children should come to school wearing masks every day, all day, like muzzles, I would urge you to consider whether you as a parent would want to co-parent with the government," Stephanie Franks of Gastonia said at Monday's Gaston school board meeting.

"I stand with freedom for parents to decide what their children should do," said Ann Jordan of Mount Holly, who identified herself as a nurse anesthetist.

But those boards are also hearing from parents who want the protection of masks and from local doctors.

"We know that masks work. They help reduce the transmission of COVID-19 by stopping respiratory droplets," Dr. Crystal Bowe of Gastonia said at the same meeting. "We know that masks will help keep these students in school, and it will help keep our teachers safe."

Quarantines Threaten Education

Members of the Cabarrus and Gaston school boards said their reversal was driven partly by the prospect of having to send large numbers of students home if masks are optional.

North Carolina's quarantine rules are complex, but the bottom line is that when everyone is properly masked, students don't have to quarantine after exposure unless they develop COVID-19 symptoms. If mask use is inconsistent, exposed students may face quarantines of seven to 14 days — and high community spread means classrooms could face repeated exposure.

Some board members concluded that the need to spend time on complex contact tracing and the risk of having large numbers of students absent made mask-optional plans impractical, even if they're popular with constituents.

Early Results Are Ominous

Earlier this summer it looked like the availability of vaccines for people 12 and older was bringing the pandemic under control. But the emergence of the highly contagious delta variant sent cases spiking — mostly in unvaccinated people, but also in some who got their shots.

Some schools that opened early saw how quickly that spreads into schools. Mooresville Graded School District reversed its mask-optional policy Aug. 6, after cases emerged and quarantines were required in the first week of school.

Union Academy in Monroe opened July 26, with about half its 2,000 students having parental exemptions from wearing masks. The first week there were 14 COVID-19 cases and the K-12 charter school clamped down on masking. But the virus kept spreading. By the start of the fourth week 89 students and 13 staff had tested positive and the state had declared it the region's first COVID-19 school cluster of the academic year.

Those numbers, if extrapolated to a district the size of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, would represent thousands of students and hundreds of employees within the first month. That's a far higher level than the district reported last school year.

Head of School John Marshall says Union Academy's experience leaves him with unanswered questions, such as how effective the masks were in slowing spread once it got started. But he says he's willing to trust the medical experts — and his teachers.

"If your teachers are on board and they are wearing the masks and emphasizing the importance of all the things you do to mitigate spread, students are much more likely to get on board and be supportive, even if some of their parents are not," he said Tuesday.

Breaks From Mask Use

Medical experts have repeatedly told area school boards that masks are effective and pose no health threat to healthy children. But districts say they'll try to build in safe mask breaks throughout the day.

Masks are no longer required outdoors, so recess and moving between buildings will provide some respite. Masks will also come off when students eat and drink.

Each school must figure out how to provide as much space and fresh air during meals as possible. Many will likely allow outdoor lunches when weather permits. Inside, some will eat in classrooms and others in the cafeteria — possibly with lunch rotations broken into smaller groups to avoid a tight-packed group of kids sitting around a table.

Every district and school also provides mask exemptions for students who can’t wear one, though the details of how those are enforced vary. Often there has to be a medical sign-off, not just a parent’s word.

Most districts in the Charlotte area have also offered virtual academies for families who, for whatever reason, would prefer to have their kids learn from home. It won’t be as easy to switch in and out of remote instruction as it was last year, but independent of the pandemic, public schools offer homebound education services for students who have conditions that keep them from being in school.

Vaccines Encouraged, Not Required

Health officials say vaccines offer the best protection for all who are old enough. So far school districts are not requiring employees to get vaccinated, though many are offering vaccine clinics and encouraging staff and students over 12 to get the shots voluntarily.

North Carolina education officials have said they'll use federal COVID-19 relief money to pay for screening tests for schools that want it. CMS leaders have discussed requiring weekly screening for unvaccinated employees but say that program won't be in place when schools open next week.

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Updated: August 18, 2021 at 12:20 PM EDT
Updated to add Lincoln County Schools.
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.