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Despite COVID-19 spike, Union and Lincoln schools stick with mask-optional plans

People on both sides of the mask question gathered outside the Union County Public Schools office before going inside to speak to the board Tuesday.
Janice Robinson
Red, Wine & Blue
People on both sides of the mask question gathered outside the Union County Public Schools office before going inside to speak to the board Tuesday.

Masks are now mandatory in Cabarrus, Iredell-Statesville and Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools but remain optional in Union and Lincoln counties. All five districts voted this week as the omicron variant of COVID-19 sends case numbers spiking across the country.

North Carolina’s law requiring school boards to vote monthly on mask policies creates an ever-changing landscape of local rules. The state School Boards Association tracks them here.

Officials in all districts reported seeing higher numbers of cases and quarantines since students returned from winter break.

“We have in UCPS observed a sharp increase in the positive cases reported by students and staff. We all know that. We mirror what’s going on in our community and we’re seeing a sharp increase,” Union County Assistant Superintendent Jarrod McCraw told the board Tuesday.

Union County, with about 40,000 students, is the largest North Carolina district to allow staff and students to enter schools unmasked throughout this school year. People on both sides of the mask question demonstrated before the meeting and made their case during public comments.

“I want to take a moment and thank you again for being a voice of reason during what is probably the largest peer-pressure campaign in human history,” said Britney Bouldin of Moms for Liberty Union County. “The truth is, cloth and surgical masks don’t work for a respiratory virus. They never did.”

Melissa Filanowicz cited the record number of cases as a reason to start requiring masks.

“Masks can help mitigate this surge,” she said. “Are they perfect? No. But neither are seat belts, smoke detectors or bike helmets.”

Several speakers criticized Union County Public Schools for dropping its weekly COVID-19 dashboard, which had been used to report the number of student and staff cases and quarantines. McCraw said changes to state rules that reduced the amount of time staff and students have to quarantine made it difficult to track those numbers this semester.

The board voted 7-1 to maintain the mask-optional policy.

Lincoln says teachers can’t be ‘mask police’

Frequent and confusing changes to state rules raised questions at Tuesday’s Union and Lincoln county board meetings. Officials from both districts said they’re still trying to figure out changes posted Monday night, the third revision in the past two weeks.

The Lincoln board voted 4-2 not only to keep masks optional but to ban educators from having to enforce the complex new rules. “I have a motion on the floor to continue with mask optional,” board Chair Heather Rhyne said, adding that “no teacher will be allowed, or administrator will be allowed, to enforce a mask mandate or be the mask police.”

The new rules allow students to come back after five days, even if they’ve tested positive or displayed COVID-19 symptoms, as long as they wear a mask for another five to 10 days. Board members said it will be up to school nurses to enforce that.

CMS sticks with a mandate

CMS has required masks inside since the pandemic began. That board voted 6-2 to continue that mandate. Board member Sean Strain said the board needs an “exit ramp,” or data points that would trigger lifting the requirement. He said this might not be the time, but he wanted to see that spelled out. He and Cheek voted no on the renewed mandate.

Mecklenburg County is under a countywide indoor mask mandate that includes schools.

Cabarrus and Iredell require masks

Monday night the Cabarrus County board approved a two-week mask mandate 4-3. School officials said student quarantine numbers are at an all-time high, with 1,200 students quarantined in a district of about 33,000.

“It’s for two weeks so it’s not very long, and it’s doing something to reduce the number of people we’re sending home that need to be in school,” board member Rob Walter said. “I mean, 1,200 kids is just too many. We’ve got to do something.”

Also Monday, the Iredell-Statesville board voted 5-2 to extend a mask mandate that took effect last week, when students returned from winter break.

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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.