Carteret County School Board members, facing impassioned pleas to not lift an earlier decision allowing the voluntary use of face masks in classrooms, made a bold and necessary decision Wednesday at a special public meeting to mandate the use of masks for the first two weeks of class.
The board set the two-week time frame as a test period after which the decision will be reviewed at the board’s regularly scheduled meeting 6 p.m., Sept. 7.
Carteret County Schools open Monday morning, receiving approximately 7,900 students in grades K-12 at the 19 countywide campuses to begin another traditional school year. But because of the continuing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing number of reported cases the board voted 4 to 2 to rescind its earlier decision in favor of a mandatory requirement that all students and school personnel will wear masks inside school buildings.
Board member Katie Statler, who very recently gave birth to a child, attempted to attend the meeting via computer connection but was unable to attend the full four-hour meeting and so was not included in the final vote.
Approximately 60 residents and parents attended the four-hour meeting with many providing brief comments, all of which were opposed to the possibility of a mask mandate. In a few instances the opposing comments were especially impassioned but all were courteous.
Most of the concerns provided by the parents and guardians revolved around the disruption that the masks will cause for the students as they attend class. In several cases, parents expressed concerns that masks will only enhance the fear of the disease, arguing that there is conflicting evidence about the efficacy of the masks and even questioned the benefits of the vaccines currently in use.
Board member Travis Day, a strong opponent of the mandate, threw a red herring into the debate focusing on the statistical analysis of the mortality of the disease. Using state and federal statistics he noted that the possibility of death is very rare among children and in the vast majority of those cases, there is usually a co-morbidity factor, or underlying health issue that contributes to the death of the patient.
While the mortality statistics were included in presentations by state and local health officials they were never the core focus of their discussion. Instead, Dr. Betsy Tilson, N.C. Health Director and Nina Oliver, county health director, focused on the speed at which the virus is spreading nationwide and particularly in the county. Ms. Oliver stated a 1,207% increase in active COVID-19 cases in the county over the past month with no indication that the cases are slowing down. The county’s percent of positivity rate for the week of Aug. 8-14 is at 14.3%, while the state’s positivity rate is 13.5%. The state’s goal is a 5% positivity rate.
The statistical analysis that Mr. Day totally ignored and never discussed in the meeting are the test scores recorded last year that showed the dismal results of a totally disrupted school environment relegating education to a partially or totally remote classroom environment. Those statistics alone justify aggressive efforts to get students back in the classroom, regardless of face coverings
The school board has three constituencies of concern. The first are the students. Parents have delegated the responsibility of education to the school’s teachers and staff. In the process they have also left these students to their care, also known as “Loco Parentis” meaning- in place of a parent. The school board, the administration, the teachers and school staffs recognize this very important responsibility so any threat to these students is a serious concern requiring action even if it includes the inconvenience of masking indoors. This is minor when considering the possibility of mass infections that will impact not only students but teachers and parents as well.
The other two constituent groups the board represents are the school teachers and staff, and then finally the parents or guardians of the children in the county’s schools.
All the board members expressed frustration about the choices provided but as board member John McLean pointed out in the defense of the mandate, if the virus becomes so contagious that teachers and staff become sick, which is very possible, then the schools will have to be closed, putting the education back in the same predicament as last year.
Kathryn Chadwick was the only other board member joining Mr. Day in opposition to the board decision.
Addressing the possibility of a return to remote or hybrid classroom instruction, board chairman Clark Jenkins stated, “I can tell you virtual (learning) was an abysmal failure….” He went on to explain, “My daughter struggled and I don’t want go to back there (remote learning). I am willing to put a mask on her for two weeks if it will keep our kids in school.” He went on to stress, “this is not political. This is about my daughter and son and your daughter and sons staying in school.”
The current situation for re-instituting in-classroom programs is tenuous at best considering the highly contagious nature of the Delta variant of the virus. And this is the primary concern of the majority of the county’s school board.
The county board of education has made a tough, albeit unpleasant tactical decision that best serves their three primary constituencies while providing the best educational environment possible. Only time will tell if this is the right decision but for the moment it is the most common sense and optimal decision.