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

2 More Charlotte-Area Districts Mandate Masks As COVID-19 Disrupts In-Person School

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Iredell-Statesville Superintendent Jeff James argues Tuesday for the school board to require masks in schools.

The Iredell-Statesville and Catawba County school boards approved mask mandates Tuesday as the COVID-19 delta variant disrupted the start of in-person classes.

Iredell-Statesville Superintendent Jeff James was clearly frustrated when he opened the special school board meeting. At the end of the first week of school, 61 students had tested positive for COVID-19 and almost 600 students had been quarantined because of close contact. That’s out of a district of about 20,000 students.

By 4 p.m. Tuesday the positive cases had more than doubled and almost 1,400 students were in quarantine. James told the board that if they insisted on giving employees and students the option not to wear masks, those numbers would keep rising.

"By Friday I will tell you, looking at the current numbers, we will easily be at 5,000 to 6,000 quarantined and probably 200, 250 that are testing positive," he said.

James said it’s too late to avoid closing some schools temporarily.

"As of about 24 hours from now, if we can get computers deployed, our first school will be going virtual for two weeks to break the quarantine cycle," he said.

State's Quarantine Rules Are Key

North Carolina’s school safety rules allow unvaccinated students to stay in school if they’re exposed to COVID-19, as long as they don’t have symptoms and everyone is properly masked. James said the board now had only two choices: Mandate masks or prepare to shut down a lot of schools.

"I’ve said this for a year and a half," he said. "I continue to say this. You’ve listened to me but you’ve not heard me. The quarantine rules will determine if we’re going to be face-to-face or virtual. That’s all it comes down to."

The Iredell-Statesville board voted 4-2 to require masks. A few hours later the Catawba County school board followed suit, voting 5-2 to make masks mandatory starting Thursday.

"As of 4 p.m. (Tuesday), the district had approximately 9% of all students (1,447) quarantined or isolated and 58 staff quarantined or isolated," Catawba County Schools said in a notice to families. "This represents a 530% increase in the number of student and 153% increase in staff quarantines/isolations since the beginning of school."

Other Districts Also Struggle

Districts across the region are grappling with the effects of the delta variant as most of them enter their second week of in-person classes. Union County, the largest district in North Carolina to open with masks optional, reported 145 students testing positive and more than 1,700 in quarantine after the first week, in a district of about 40,000 students.

Union County's Parkwood High School was also added to the state's COVID-19 school cluster list Tuesday. The designation means health officials believe at least five cases are linked to school spread. Many area schools have more than five cases, but those are likely categorized as community spread.

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Rowan-Salisbury Schools trends line since opening Aug. 11

Cabarrus County Schools, with about 32,000 students, had 215 student cases the first week and almost 600 students quarantined. That board decided at the last minute to require masks.

Rowan-Salisbury Schools opened Aug. 11 with masks optional and made them mandatory a week later. As of this week it has COVID clusters at seven of its 35 schools, more than any other district in the region.

As of Monday Rowan-Salisbury was reporting 282 student cases, out of about 18,000 students.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was the last in the area to bring students back, starting Aug. 25. Its first-week report shows 125 student cases out of almost 144,000 students.

The CMS reports don't show how many students are quarantined. CMS was one of the first in the state to require masks after the state lifted its mandate.

State health officials still urge all schools to require masks inside. The (Raleigh) News & Observer reports that as of Tuesday night, only 11 districts representing 6% of North Carolina students still have mask-optional policies.

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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.