MOREHEAD CITY — County health officials said Monday they oppose the school board’s Jan. 4 decision to keep masks optional in schools with the recent surge in COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant.
“Vaccinations and masking are the highest protection available in schools and that’s what we continue to recommend in our school system,” Health Director Nina Oliver said during the County Consolidated Human Services Board meeting, held via Zoom. “The benefit is to keep kids in school and the best way we can do that is using masks.”
She pointed out that board members, in the fall, had originally agreed if the county positivity rate went above 5% they would require masks inside school buildings. However, in November, the school board voted to remove that benchmark and instead review additional data before requiring masks.
As of Monday, the county’s positivity rate was 17.5%. The positivity rate reflects the percentage of those being tested who are positive for COVID-19.
Consolidated Human Services Director Cindy Holman echoed Ms. Oliver’s concerns.
“We are experiencing a significant spike in cases. We ask you (Consolidated Human Services board members) to support us when we continue to recommend and try to follow unpopular guidance coming from the CDC and the state,” she said. “We genuinely desire for our community to be healthy and we are going to keep on keeping on even when it’s unpopular.”
Consolidated Human Services Board Chairman Carol Wray endorsed health officials’ recommendations.
“As a board, we will continue to support you,” Ms. Wray said.
Board member Dr. Gregory Reichert, a physician, agreed with Ms. Oliver’s recommendation and thanked her for continuing to provide information based on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and science to the public.
“It gets hard saying the truth over and over again and it gets hard when the information is not heeded,” he said. “I personally know it’s exhausting, but keep it up.”
In response to county health officials’ concerns, County Board of Education Chairman Clark Jenkins said Monday night following the meeting, “We monitor all facets of our community and school data daily and if we need to make a change in policy we will do so.”
Superintendent Dr. Rob Jackson, in an email response Tuesday, said, “The Board of Education continues to monitor COVID metrics. Face-coverings are currently optional and may be worn throughout the school system. The school system has and will continue to follow all requirements of the Carteret County Health Department, and we appreciate their great work throughout the pandemic.”
As of Friday, there were 39 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported in county schools from Jan. 3-6. Teachers reported back to classrooms Jan. 3 after the Christmas holidays, with students reporting back Jan. 5. Of the cases, 17 were students and 22 were employees.
Ms. Holman further said Monday that the health department has been inundated with calls from parents asking for guidance on isolation requirements when their children are positive for COVID or are exposed to others who are positive.
“Today, we have begun to receive a greatly increased number of phone calls from parents indicating that they have been directed to us by school nurses. These parents had received no information about contact tracing or quarantining,” she said. “We will accept these calls and give instruction around both contact tracing and quarantining to the very best of our ability. We want you to know that this will increase the burden on the health department, which is already inundated with testing and vaccinating.”
In response, Dr. Jackson said school nurses and personnel “are working hard to assist parents in understanding quarantining requirements as they continue to be changed by the state. The state toolkit has been revised multiple times this year and twice within the last week. Rapid changes can be confusing, and we are here to help students, staff and families understand the process. We truly appreciate the patience, flexibility, and support of parents and community members as we navigate this pandemic together.”
Ms. Oliver listed other concerns she had with practices currently being used in schools, including a 3-foot minimum distance instead of 6 feet for contact tracing when someone is exposed to COVID-19. She also was worried about the school system using antibody tests as a method to determine if someone is protected.
“The CDC is stating that antibody tests will no longer be used to make that determination,” she said. “That is not our decision, but the state’s and CDC.”
As of Jan. 10, the StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit states that the American Association of Pediatrics recommends universal masking in schools, which is what the CDC also recommends.
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.