Carteret County Board of Education members have been saddled with a Hobson’s Choice when it comes to deciding to mandate mask usage by students and teachers versus making the decision optional. In either case the board recognizes there will be negative short term impacts but recognizing this fact, the board has wisely opted to focus on the long term benefit of maintaining the current mask policy.
Last year, because of the highly contagious COVID-19 pandemic, students were forced into remote learning or participating in hybrid instruction which involved two days in class and two days of remote instruction. End of grade (EOG) test scores from the 2020-21 academic year showed a marked decline, 11%, over the 2018-19 results. (Because the pandemic interrupted almost the entire spring semester of the 2019-20 school year, EOG test were eliminated that year.) These test results along with the frustration that teachers, students and parents expressed about the previous academic year’s experience have weighed heavily on the board.
The board’s vote to continue the current mask mandate Tuesday evening did not come easily as reported by News-Times staffer Cheryl Burke. The board members expressed disappointment in continuing the policy as they did a month earlier when the original mandate was passed. And as in that meeting, the board voted 5-2 to continue the current policy until their October meeting, when it will be reconsidered.
The decision was made even more difficult as a large majority of the public attending the board meeting displayed signs opposing the continuation of the mandate, with numerous commenters expressing frustration and anger about the policy. That anger has, unfortunately, become personal, bordering on intimidation, which does little to elevate the discussion to lead to alternative solutions.
Board member Katie Statler, who was unable to attend the August board meeting, read a prepared statement decrying the attitude of those opposing the board’s earlier decision stating that board members have “been cursed at, called cowards” and in some cases “have had their full-time jobs threatened.”
The board’s decision is predicated on two very important long-term issues. Their first concern is how can they best assure that in-class participation can continue despite the ever present pandemic which is infecting young and old alike?
The results alone prove that the previous year’s educational experience was dismal at best. The vast majority of the parents, students and teachers, dissatisfied with last year’s schooling, were excited as this school year began with the prospect of in classroom instructions. But the increase in COVID infections have made this decision tenuous at best.
In an effort to reduce the possibility of viral transmission, the board is continuing to require masks in all closed spaces, to include school buses and the classrooms, unless removal is needed for activities such as eating or playing band instruments. The purpose is to maintain an environment, albeit questionably effective, that at least contributes to lower transmission of the disease.
The county school system is reporting a decline in bus drivers, cafeteria workers and even some teaching positions which is adding further stress to keeping the doors open. One major outbreak of the virus in the schools will result in a closure of the school or schools affected and a return to virtual instruction, which no one wants.
The other, and very important concern, is that of responsibility and liability. School board attorney Neal Whitford noted during the meeting that the board faces liability if it fails to take prudent steps to assure the safety and wellbeing of the students and staff. This is one fact that is not being considered by the opponents of the mandate.
The board’s decision is focused on its responsibility for establishing the standards of operations for teachers and administrators. Recognizing the highly contagious nature of the virus, the board is taking prudent steps to assure, as much as possible, the reduction in the transmissibility of the virus while students and teachers are in the schools.
There is ample proof that the board members are not satisfied with the choice presented with the current health status caused by the pandemic. If they remove the mandate and the contagion runs rampant, they are at fault. If on the other hand they maintain the mandate, and it does little to reduce the contagion and at the same time discomforts the parents and students, they lose again. There is no victory in either case, so the school board has wisely chosen to focus on the “long game” by taking the most prudent course to keep the school doors open and the students in their seats.