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New Hanover County School Board votes for mandatory K-12 masking for the start of the school year

New Hanover County School Board votes on mask protocols for upcoming school year
New Hanover County School Board votes on mask protocols for upcoming school year(WECT News)
Published: Aug. 3, 2021 at 4:33 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The New Hanover County Board of Education voted 6-0 to require that all students and staff in grades K-12 wear masks at the start of the upcoming school year.

The school board meeting was held remotely after a board member tested positive for COVID-19.

The school board added that it will continue to evaluate this decision as the school year progresses and will study the data with the hope they will at some point be able to drop masking when it is safe.

Board Chair Stefanie Adams said the decision was not an easy one, as the board received 700-800 emails from the public within the past week surrounding masking, adding that the decision for her ultimately came down to keeping kids in the classroom.

“I’ve said this before with some of the conversations that have been related to Covid situations — I would not wish this job on anyone, having to make these decisions and choices,” Adams said. “With quarantine rules based on the toolkit — if a Covid case happens in a classroom, if the children are masked, there is no quarantine requirement for the children to be exposed, which keeps kids in the classroom.”

During the discussion that led up to the unanimous vote, several board members said they favored giving parents the choice on masks until recently.

“I was actually leaning towards choice until about a week ago. It seems the progression has become worse,” board member Hugh McManus said. “We monitor it and then if the data proves that it’s not necessary then we can retract but I think we need the inconvenience for the safety of our staff in addition to our students as well.”

McManus added that the board should be proactive rather than reactive.

Every board member spoke to why they think the 2021-22 school year should begin with everyone grade K-12 masked up. All pointed to the rapid increase of cases, viral spread and hospitalizations in New Hanover County, fueled by the more contagious Delta variant.

“We were going down. It was looking really good and then this Delta variant just went across the country like wildfire. Yesterday we had 105 new cases. It hasn’t been like that since last winter when things were getting like crazy,” said board member Judy Justice.

The school board also heard from Julie Varnam, the Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services, who provided some recent data from the county. Overall positive cases have more than tripled in a two-week period from just over 100 new positives two weeks ago to 383 positives last week. Additionally, only 32% of kids ages 12-17 in New Hanover County are fully vaccinated.

The StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit was updated last week by state health officials to align with CDC guidance. It reads that all schools should, “require all children and staff in schools K-12th grade to wear face coverings consistently when indoors.”

Pender and Columbus county school districts both voted that face masks will not be required this fall. Brunswick and Bladen County school districts will both make their decisions next week.

The North Carolina Pediatric Society, which represents more than 2,300 pediatricians and other child health professionals across the state, released an open letter to all school boards and superintendents on Tuesday.

It reads in part, “The N.C. Pediatric Society strongly supports in-person education with students, school personnel and volunteers consistently and appropriately wearing masks indoors in all grades. We applaud the work of School Boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, school staff and others to keep educating children while keeping them safe and fed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. We appreciate your efforts to assure children can be educated in-person and are alarmed by the studies showing lack of gain in education during remote learning, despite often-heroic efforts by schools.”

The open letter went on to say that in-person education is best for children’s health and that masking is a critical component of safe, in-person learning right now.

Laney High School football field discussion

The naming of Laney High School football field was on Tuesday’s agenda.

The board discussed naming the football field after Larry TooToo, which is the name that previously received the most votes from the public in renaming the high school’s stadium. TooToo coached football at Laney for many years.

According to a post by NHCS on Twitter, school board member Judy Justice made a motion to establish a survey to name the football field. The motion was denied so the item will be moved forward for further review in 60 days.

During the previous board of education meeting, the board voted to rename the stadium Buccaneer Stadium. It was formerly named after Dr. Rick Holliday, but his name was removed after thousands signed a petition.

Policy 5120 requires further review

Policy 5120 was up for a second reading; however, it was pulled from the list before the vote.

Board members approved all the policies for the second reading as presented with the exception of 5120 and 5070, which will go back to policy committee for further discussion.

Policy 5120 would lay out how students are questioned or searched by law enforcement and if a child’s parents would have to be there. In July, Policy 5120 passed the first reading.

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