MOREHEAD CITY — After listening to emotional parents, a student and community members speak for and against mask mandates, the Carteret County Board of Education voted 5-2 Tuesday evening to keep requiring masks in schools at least until the next board meeting in October.
The decision came during the BOE’s regular meeting Tuesday in the multipurpose room of Morehead City Primary School.
After hearing from 21 speakers, Superintendent Dr. Rob Jackson and board attorney Neil Whitford, and following a lengthy and heated debate, board member John McLean made the motion to continue the mask mandate until the Tuesday, Oct. 3 meeting. The motion included a stipulation that the administration and board come up with a set of metrics regarding the number of positive COVID-19 cases and quarantines in schools to determine when it’s acceptable for students and staff to not be required to wear masks.
“When we hit a certain benchmark we can move in and out of requiring masks,” Mr. McLean said, adding that the overall goal is to keep students in school versus reverting to virtual learning.
Board member Dennis Goodwin seconded the motion, with members Brittany Wheatly, Katie Statler and board chairman Clark Jenkins voting in favor. Kathryn Smith Chadwick and Travis Day voted against.
Wednesday morning, Mr. Jenkins said state law now requires school boards to discuss COVID-19 and the mask mandate each month at their meetings. He believed by the board establishing a set of metrics, it could help ease some of the debate.
“We can look at the numbers and say if we get above this, masks go on, and if it drops below that benchmark, the masks come off,” he said.
Prior to the vote, Dr. Jackson shared statistics from the County Health Department, as well as the school district, showing that the number of students and staff infected with COVID-19 is on the rise, as are the numbers being required to quarantine.
He said between Aug. 23, when the school year started, and Sept. 7, the district has reported 146 confirmed COVID-19 cases in students, representing 1.85% of the current student enrollment.
During the same period, there have been 941 students quarantined, representing 11.9% of current enrollment.
From Aug. 9 through Sept. 7, there have been 112 staff quarantines. That includes 49 quarantined due to being in close contact with someone infected with the virus, and another 62 displaying COVID-19 symptoms and one “other.”
The district has granted 214 mask exemptions for students since the beginning of the school year, representing 2.69% of student enrollment. There have been 16 mask exemptions granted for staff.
Dr. Jackson also shared, based on statistics provided by the County Health Department, that there has been a spike in cases of COVID-19 across the state in ages birth to 17 years. The week of Aug. 22, there were 9,645 confirmed COVID-19 cases in that age group in North Carolina.
The majority of speakers Tuesday were against the mask mandate, claiming they had data to prove masks aren’t effective and that the school system was over-quarantining students. Many were also against vaccinations, saying they feared the government would soon be forcing vaccines on their families.
Many of the nearly 80 people attending the meeting did not wear masks, and at times the board chairman and a law enforcement officer on hand in case of trouble had to calm the unruly crowd down. Some called on board members to resign if they wouldn’t make masks optional. Several hundred additional people attended the meeting virtually.
Board member Katie Statler, who was not able to attend the Aug. 18 meeting when the board voted to make masks mandatory for the first two weeks of school, said in a prepared statement she and other board members who voted for the mask mandate have received threats.
“We’ve been cursed at. Called cowards. Others have had their full-time jobs threatened,” she said at the beginning of the meeting.
During the public comment time, Amy Merrell, a mother of two at Newport Elementary School, said, “I make the health choices for my children. There is no association between the mask mandates in use and the number of infections. Masks are making our children unhealthy.”
Dr. Leslie Richardson, a pediatrician for more than 30 years, supported the mask mandate, saying not only are masks effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, so are vaccines.
“For many years we’ve learned the use of protective gear, including masks, work. I’ve seen numerous children getting various vaccines that have helped," she said. "I have children in my office everyday with developmental disabilities, and they tolerate the masks.”
While several speakers said there have been as many, if not more, flu-related deaths as COVID-19 deaths, Dr. Jackson presented state statistics provided by the County Health Department to the contrary.
“Reported N.C. COVID-19 deaths in the past 16 months are 14,468,” he said. “Reported N.C. influenza deaths in the past 10 years are 1,275.”
Following public comment, Mr. Whitford shared about the legal ramifications if the board votes to make masks optional and a student or staff member, or a family member of either, were to become sick with the virus and were hospitalized or died.
Mr. Whitford said the N.C. Commission for Public Health has the authority to adopt control measures to prevent the spread of communicable disease. The commission has adopted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as its recommended control measures, and those measures are included in the state’s StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit. The toolkit sets out the safety guidelines schools must follow.
“If the school system doesn’t follow the control measures authorized by the commission and someone gets very sick or dies, the school system is exposing itself to enhanced liability,” Mr. Whitford said. “Most school systems don’t carry traditional liability insurance.”
Ultimately, Mr. Whitford said if someone were to get sick or die because of the school system not following required safety protocols, “paying damages can end up on the shoulders of taxpayers.”
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, to include a full report.
MOREHEAD CITY — After listening to parents speak for and against mask mandates, the Carteret County Board of Education voted 5-2 Tuesday evening to keep requiring masks in schools at least until the next board meeting in October.
The decision came during the BOE's regular meeting Tuesday in the multipurpose room of Morehead City Primary School. The board previously voted 4-2 on Aug. 18 to require students, staff and visitors wear face masks inside all public school buildings for at least the first two weeks of the school year.
BOE members Travis Day and Kathryn Chadwick voted against continuing the mask mandate.
This is a developing report.