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Union County School Board Bucks Trend, Votes To Stick With Mask-Optional Opening

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Wednesday night's emergency school board meeting on COVID-19 safety for in-person classes was conducted remotely.

A motion to require masks inside Union County Public Schools failed on a 7-2 vote Wednesday night. It’s the largest district in North Carolina that will allow students to enter classrooms unmasked on Monday.

Late last month, the board unanimously voted to make face coverings optional when the statewide mandate expired July 30. This week Union County Health Director Dennis Joyner asked the board to reverse that decision, given the surging community spread of COVID-19.

Assistant Superintendent Jarrod McCraw said the health officials and district administrators waited to make the request because they hoped COVID-19 numbers would level off.

"We wanted to continue to give people a choice," McCraw said, "but with numbers continuing to rise, we were concerned about the number of positive cases. We were concerned about the number of people who could potentially be quarantined."

In the last five days, 68 kids enrolled in Union County schools tested positive for COVID-19, officials said, even though most schools have yet to open their doors.

North Carolina’s quarantine rules allow students who are exposed to COVID-19 to remain at school as long as they have no symptoms if everyone is properly masked. Without universal masking, exposed students can be sent home for seven to 14 days.

Board member John Kirkpatrick IV made the motion to require masks.

"We are in a situation where all of us as a community, we are our brother’s keeper — even if it may be uncomfortable, even if it may not be popular for a season, for a time — so that we can be a stronger community and beat this COVID-19," he said.

Only Kirkpatrick and Joseph Morreale voted for that motion.

Board Chair Melissa Merrell argued that the district needs to focus on different numbers, such as the fact that the majority of people in Union County hospitals are not COVID-19 patients and that the majority of people with COVID-19 are not school-aged kids, "instead of creating all this fear and making families feel like they need to lock their kids up at home and not let ‘em go to school."

Board member Gary Sides said Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision not to force districts to require masks indicates the situation isn’t as dire as health officials say it is. Wednesday afternoon, Cooper renewed his call for local school boards to require masks but did not re-institute a state order.

"So our governor has a press conference today and does not mandate masks," Sides said. "If there is such concern, why did the governor not do a mask mandate?"

As COVID-19 numbers have spiked across the state, several mask-optional districts recently reversed their decisions. In the Charlotte region, Gaston, Cabarrus, Lincoln and Rowan-Salisbury schools approved mask mandates this week. Most of those students return to classrooms Monday.

Union County has about 40,000 students, the state’s sixth-largest district. All the others in the top 10 require masks for all staff and students.