Gaston school board keeps masks optional despite ‘breathtaking’ surge in COVID-19 cases
The Gaston County school voted 4-3 Thursday to keep masks optional inside schools. The vote came despite Public Health Director Steve Eaton telling members that COVID-19 cases in the county are reaching new highs.
“When you look at the daily new cases of COVID you can see that we’re currently far surpassing the highest peaks of the pandemic by leaps and bounds,” he said. “The dramatic vertical acceleration in daily new cases is … I was trying to come up with a word, and I think the word is probably ‘breathtaking.’ ”
Gaston County currently has a 33.4% positivity rate, is rated at the highest level of community spread and falls below the state average for vaccination of school-age children, Eaton said. He urged the board to return to a mask mandate.
Gaston County Schools required masks until Nov. 29. Charts presented at Thursday’s meeting showed the number of student quarantines, exposures and positive cases all rose in December.
In November, when students were in class 18 days, 2,177 students were quarantined or isolated with symptoms, and 121 of them eventually tested positive for COVID-19.
In December, with 15 days of class, 3,352 students were isolated or quarantined and 213 of them tested positive.
The district has about 29,000 students.
Students returned from winter break Monday, amid a statewide surge in cases of the omicron variant. In the first four days just over 1,400 students have been quarantined or sent home with symptoms and 14 have tested positive.
Board members Dot Guthrie, Lee Dedmon and Robbie Lovelace voted to require masks.
“I mean, if we don’t listen to our health director we probably need a new health director,” Dedmon said. “It’s overwhelming. We’re not hurting anybody by wearing a mask. We’re only helping our children and our teachers.”
Guthrie and Lovelace both noted that the board can vote again as early as two weeks, and said it makes sense to try masks and see how the numbers go.
Vice Chair Dot Cherry and members Kevin Collier, Brent Moore and Justin Davis voted to “stay the course” and let staff and students decide whether to cover their faces. They did not elaborate on their reasons.
Chair Jeff Ramsey didn’t vote and Steve Hall was absent.
North Carolina health officials urge schools to require masks indoors. But the decision is left to local boards and state law requires monthly votes. This week Cabarrus County schools switched from optional to mandatory, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Iredell-Statesville schools stuck with mask mandates and Union and Lincoln counties stuck with mask-optional policies. The one thing they all have in common is rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, but elected leaders have different views on the best way to deal with that.