Board votes 4-1 to make masking optional beginning Monday

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The Chatham County Board of Education approved a policy change allowing optional masking inside all school buildings beginning March 7 during a special meeting last Thursday.

Board members Melissa Hlavac, Del Turner, Jane Allen Wilson and Gary Leonard each voted in favor of making masks optional inside all county school buildings beginning a week from Monday, while board member David Hamm voted against the measure. Hamm said his only objection to the revised policy was his belief the change should be effective immediately, rather than beginning on March 7.

CCS Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson cited the recent trend in statewide public health metrics related to the COVID-19 pandemic as the rationale behind the administration’s recommended change.

According to the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services website, Monday saw fewer than 1,000 newly reported cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina — the lowest number since last July — and the positivity rate in testing has also seen a sharp decline.

“The data is moving in the right direction,” Jackson told the board.

Jackson also cited the school system’s consultation with the Chatham County Public Health Department and the ABC Science Collaborative as the reason for the administration’s recommendation to move to optional masking. The change in masking policy comes one week after N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper encouraged school systems to relax their mask mandates for teachers, students and staff members, also beginning March 7.

Nearly all of the state’s school districts have moved toward making masks optional.

Turner, who has been one of the most vocal masking mandate proponents, commented on the current metrics during a 15-minute discussion on the question, while expressing her concern about the cyclical nature of the global pandemic. Turner stated another wave of COVID-19 infections could very well hit Chatham County in the weeks and months ahead.

“Just as these numbers are going down, they will go back up again,” she said.

Wilson said she was dismayed by the fact the vaccination rate among school-aged children in Chatham has shown very little improvement in recent months. She then inquired about accommodations for immunocompromised teachers, staff and students.

Jackson said accommodations would be made for anyone who needs or requests them, and the school system would continue to work closely with the county health department to monitor COVID-19 metrics. If a change in the pandemic were to occur, the board would revisit masking protocols, he said.

The board’s 4-1 vote on CCS’s masking policy was on language which read, in part, “Due to a continual decline in COVID-19 cases over the last several weeks, the availability of vaccines, and the county’s low positivity rate, the administration recommends removing the mask mandate district wide effective March 7, 2022, shifting the risk from district mitigation to individual responsibility. This decision aligns with Governor Cooper’s recommendation of encouraging schools and local governments to end their mask mandates and is supported by the Chatham County Public Health Department.”

Under state law, school boards are required to vote once a month on their masking policies, regardless of whether they plan to revise the policy or not. The superintendent assured board members the language of the revised masking policy gives the school system complete flexibility to reimpose a mandate at its discretion.

Because of a federal mandate, face coverings will still be required on school buses.

At its previous regular meeting, on Feb. 14, the board approved a framework for transitioning to optional masking inside school buildings — and permitted optional masking inside school buildings for student-athletes, coaches and athletic event spectators beginning Feb. 15. Jackson characterized that transition as a smooth one for teachers, staff and students.

In a statement made following the meeting, CCS said “(s)taff and families wishing to get vaccinated or needing to get a booster are strongly encouraged to do so. Vaccines are readily available throughout the community.”

“For those families who have been asking for this, we are pleased that we have reached this milestone,” Jackson said in the statement. “For faculty, staff or students wishing to continue wearing masks, you are welcome to. We will continue working with our local health department to monitor local trends and reserve the right to revisit these protocols if metrics deem appropriate to do so in the future.”

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