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School board extends mask requirement despite anger from parents

The Stanly County School Board Tuesday night, during an emotional meeting at Central Elementary’s auditorium, voted to extend the mask requirement passed last month, despite opposition from many parents and even a few board members.

The plan is still for masks to become optional once the county’s positivity rate drops below 7.9 percent during a consecutive two-week period, though if cases spike, masks would again be required. But that moment doesn’t appear likely to occur anytime soon as the county’s rate is worse now than it was last month: It’s currently at 16.6 percent, up from 13.9 percent in early August.

Superintendent Dr. Jarrod Dennis did announce a change to the quarantine guidelines, saying students and staff had the option of quarantining for only seven days as long as they receive a negative PCR test on the fifth day and exhibit no symptoms.

The vote to extend masking in schools comes as infections have ballooned among students and staff since school reopened a few weeks ago. More than 1,200 students and staff have been quarantined — which accounts for about 13 percent of the total population — and 148 people, including 138 students, have tested positive for COVID-19 for the week of Aug. 29 through Sept. 4, according to the school system’s COVID-19 dashboard, which was updated Tuesday.

At least one positive case has been identified in every school during the period except Stanly County Early College High School. Seventeen schools have at least 30 people in quarantine, with two schools — North Stanly High School and West Stanly High School — having more than 100 people out. Twenty-three students and three staff members have tested positive at North Stanly while 20 students have tested positive at West Stanly.

There have also been four clusters identified within the district at Richfield Elementary, West Stanly Middle, West Stanly High and North Stanly High, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services. The state defines a cluster as five or more related cases at a facility within a 14-day period. Statewide, there are 170 ongoing COVID-19 clusters in K-12 schools or child care settings.

Dennis mentioned that athletics have played a big factor in the quarantine numbers. He said two cheerleading teams and six football teams have had to quarantine so far this school year.

“I hate the fact that we have all of these quarantines,” board member Anthony Graves said. “I never expected that it (quarantines) was going to be as chaotic as it was.”

Graves, who was the only board member not wearing a mask, introduced a few amendments to the resolution that would have made masks optional. These included basing the mask policy upon the school system’s population that tested positive as opposed to the percent positivity within the county, giving Dennis the latitude to decide on a case-by-case basis when individual schools had to quarantine and only quarantining symptomatic students and staff who were in close contact with infected individuals.

Board member Rufus Lefler, a retired physician, opposed Graves’ amendments, arguing that students and staff were getting infected based on community transmission within the county as a whole.

“What you said is totally unfounded,” Lefler told Graves. “A lot of cases are coming from the community so we have to take that into account.”

After some back-and-forth discussion, Graves’ amendments failed by a 4-2 vote, with Lefler along with board members Glenda Gibson, Vicky Watson and Carla Poplin opposing it. In addition to Graves, board member Bill Sorenson also voted for it. The board then voted to extend the mask requirement and approved it by the same 4-2 vote.

In a brief interview after the meeting, Graves said he was “disappointed” that he was not able to convince the majority of the board “that the current resolution doesn’t make sense.”

To help combat rising cases across the country, as a result of the delta variant, which accounts for 99 percent of all current infections, the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics have each recommended universal masking in schools. Gov. Roy Cooper and state health officials also encourage school districts to require masks, regardless of vaccination status.

The vast majority of the state’s 115 school districts have enacted mask requirements, though a few, including Union County, still have masks as optional.

As of Wednesday, only 35 percent of Stanly residents are fully vaccinated along with only 15 percent of children 12 to 17 — both rates well below the statewide totals.

Similar to last month’s meeting, several people, mostly parents, spoke out during public comments in opposition to their students wearing masks, questioning masks’ efficacy and saying only a handful of children nationwide have died due to COVID.

While children have made up less than one percent of total deaths, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, they now account for more than a quarter — or 26.8 percent — of all cases across the country. Hospitalizations among young people have been increasing rapidly over the summer.

“I’m appalled by what’s going on here,” in terms of the quarantine numbers, said Lynn Shimpock, who has spoken out against masks during previous board meetings. She called out board members who voted for the resolution last month with the thinking that it would reduce quarantines.

“This thing is broken,” she added. “You’re not fixing it. This thing is a mess.”

Parent Alexis Hughes said the school board was violating the United States Constitution by extending the mask requirement, which was, in her mind, restricting people’s freedoms. She added that if school board members would not make masks optional, “respectfully you should step down … and let those who can handle the pressure step up.”

Towards the end of the meeting, Graves told the community not to direct their anger at Dennis or the central office staff since they are only following a mask requirement that was passed by the school board.

“They are doing the best they can do given the constraints that we as a board have placed them under,” he said.

The debate about how to best handle protocols within schools comes as new cases have rapidly increased across Stanly County over the past month since the board first instituted the mask requirement. The county reported 409 new cases last week, a 99 percent increase from the same time last month, when only 206 cases were reported for the week of Aug. 6. There have already been 175 new cases over the holiday weekend and Tuesday, according to data from the health department.

There have been 513 pediatric cases since the beginning of July, when the delta variant was first detected in Stanly, which accounts for roughly 26 percent of all COVID cases identified in the county, according to the health department.

In addition to the cases within SCS, Gray Stone Day School has reported 14 total cases since Aug. 20 and there are currently five active cases within Pfeiffer University.

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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