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CMS Extends COVID-19 Mask Mandate While Lincoln Schools Let Masks Come Off

Sitting on rug first day CMS.jpeg
Nancy Pierce
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Charlotte-Mecklenburg students will continue wearing masks, as they have since schools opened Aug. 25.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted 7-to-2 Tuesday to maintain its mask mandate, while the Lincoln County school board voted to let students and staff take theirs off in two weeks.

Both boards reconsidered their mask mandates because of a North Carolina law that requires such votes at least once a month.

Lincoln County's switch, which defied the advice of a state health official who spent more than an hour talking with the board, signals a possibility of statewide flux. Lincoln joins Union County Public Schools in bucking the trend of mask mandates — and challenging the state rules on quarantines.

Those rules require unvaccinated students to go home for seven to 14 days if they're exposed to COVID-19 — unless everyone involved is consistently wearing masks. In that case, students can remain in class unless they develop COVID-19 symptoms or test positive.

Parent Choice Vs Health Experts

National, state and local public health experts say universal masking inside school buildings is needed to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 delta variant. But North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper let the statewide mask mandate expire this summer. The Union and Lincoln boards sided with constituents who say families should make their own choices about wearing face coverings.

State Health Director Elizabeth Tilson attended Tuesday's Lincoln County board meeting by Zoom and urged members to keep the mandate in place. But after she logged out, the board voted to lift the mandate starting Sept. 29.

The board also approved a motion by Vice Chair Heather Rhyne: "Effective immediately, unless a student is positive for COVID-19 and is in isolation, is symptomatic or has been given a written quarantine order from the local health department, they should be on school campus."

The votes were split, though it was difficult to tell the precise count or the identity of the voters from a video stream of the meeting. The majority said they wanted to keep students in school without requiring masks, and worried about the strain contact tracing puts on school staff.

That's similar to concerns raised Monday night, when the Union County school board voted to stop most contact tracing and dramatically scale back quarantines for unmasked students who are exposed. Both board essentially washed their hands of responsibility for quarantining healthy students, saying it's up to the local health department to enforce.

CMS Mulls Metrics

The CMS board was one of the first in the state to approve a mask mandate, and there was little doubt they'd extend it Tuesday. There, the debate was over a proposal by member Sean Strain to set metrics that could trigger an end to the mandate.

His motion called for reconsideration if community spread, which CMS already tracks, drops into the green zone. It also called for CMS to start reporting the number of school-age Mecklenburg County children who are hospitalized with COVID-19 and consider ending the mask mandate if that number drops below five.

"Nobody can tell me right now how many zero- to 17-year-old Mecklenburg County residents are hospitalized due to COVID," he said.

Several other board members agreed to the concept of reviewing metrics, but said they didn't want to vote on specifics without consulting health officials. Superintendent Earnest Winston said he'll bring back recommendations before next month's vote.

Chair Elyse Dashew said she’s eager to hear Winston and county health officials say, "You know what? We think we’re good. Let’s take off the masks."

But, she added, "I just don’t know necessarily that we need to lock in that metric number right now."

Board member Rhonda Cheek joined Strain in opposing a simpler version of the extended mask mandate that was approved 7-2.

A Remote Option In Emergencies

The CMS board had the same 7-2 split on giving Winston authority to move a classroom, grade level, hall or school into remote learning as needed. Winston said that could be based on in-school spread of COVID-19 or on staff shortages.

"One of the criteria we would look at is having insufficient staff, particularly as it relates to staff having to quarantine — if we do not have a sufficient number of staff members to be able to safely provide a learning experience for students," Winston said.

Cheek and Strain said they wanted a board vote before moving an entire school into remote learning. All members agreed they want to be notified before the public learns that Winston is taking students remote because they'll get questions from families.

Tuesday's vote does not authorize Winston to convert the entire district to remote learning, like CMS and many other districts did last year.

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