Chairman: School board won’t impose mask mandate for upcoming year

With more people getting vaccinated and with COVID-19 cases having largely declined since earlier in the year, there have been discussions in recent months, both in Stanly County and across the state, about whether students and staff should be required to wear masks when the school year begins next month.

Several community members have voiced their opposition to masks during recent school board meetings. They’ve argued masks aren’t needed because children are less likely to catch COVID-19 and have severe complications.

A group called Unmask Stanly County Schools sent an email to school board members, along with local media, last weekend, asking for a public forum to be held this month to “allow the voices of our community to be heard and show your concern for those you represent.” Several members of the group spoke during a school board meeting last week, stating their opposition to a mask mandate.

School Board Chairman Jeff Chance sent an email Wednesday afternoon to one of the members of the group, Amy Phibbs, writing that, while the Board understood their concerns and frustrations, a public forum “is not warranted at this time.”

Chance added that the school board would not impose any mask mandate requirement for the upcoming school year.

“The Board supports a policy that masks should be optional and the decision to wear a mask is best decided by families in consultation with their healthcare provider,” he wrote.

Face masks have been required in schools since the start of the school year last August and are also required for the summer learning programs happening across the state. The face covering requirement is part of the Strong Schools Toolkit that’s been adopted by the State Board of Education for how schools are to operate during the coronavirus pandemic. Last month, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order extending mask requirements in schools, though it’s set to expire at the end of the month.

There are no clear-cut directives from the state as to what the protocols will be concerning masks once the school year begins. A bill that recently passed the House and is working its way through the Senate could clarify things: Senate Bill 173, also known as Free The Smiles Act, would essentially put an end to the statewide mask mandate in schools. Under SB 173, local boards of education would have the authority to make face masks optional for next year.

“No later than August 1, 2021,” the bill reads, “a local board of education shall vote on any policy requiring mandatory face coverings for employees and students during the instructional day that will apply in the first instructional month of the 2021-2022 school year.”

N.C. Rep. Wayne Sasser, who supports the bill along with Stanly’s other representative Ben Moss, is hopeful it will soon become law.

“I think those decisions (regarding mask-wearing) should be made at the local level,” Sasser said.

SB173 is a revision of a Senate bill that originally had nothing to do with mask-wearing, so it’s now back in the Senate for approval. If passed in the General Assembly, the bill would need approval from Cooper before it becomes law.

Sasser said he’s had conversations with many people in the county who are against students and staff being forced to wear masks for the upcoming school year.

Citing one reason why masks should be optional, Sasser mentioned that while students can get infected from the virus, they are much less likely than adults to get seriously sick or die.

Data from a recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics seems to support Sasser’s conclusion: While more than 4 million children in the U.S. have contracted COVID-19, they comprised no more than 3 percent of total hospitalizations and the mortality rate among infected children was between 0.00 percent to 0.03 percent.

Cooper and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen have said they expect the face mask requirement to remain in place until more students can get vaccinated for COVID-19. Only children as young as 12 can currently be vaccinated.

Stanly County Health Director David Jenkins said the the most likely options for students and staff going forward is they either have to get vaccinated or continue wearing masks.

Jenkins acknowledges that while getting vaccinated is optional, it’s still the best way to ensure that people don’t contract or get seriously sick from the coronavirus — especially the new Delta variant that’s spreading across the country.

“Our main forms of protection from a public health perspective is to either wear a mask or get vaccinated,” Jenkins said, adding that he hopes more guidance from the state will come out as the new school year approaches.

A total of 43 young people received the first dose two weeks ago during a clinic at Albemarle High School, which was organized by the health department. The second shots will be administered July 14.

Only about 8 percent of young people ages 12-17 in Stanly have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to DHHS data, while only 33 percent of the entire population has received at least one dose.