Education

Optional masks in Harnett classrooms a risky move, expert says

Posted September 14, 2021 9:09 p.m. EDT
Updated September 15, 2021 9:33 a.m. EDT

— Harnett County Schools' decision to lift its mask mandate next month could be disastrous for the community, a public health expert said Tuesday.

The school board voted 3-2 Monday to make masks optional for students, teachers and school staff, starting Oct. 5.

Lisa Gralinski, a virologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Gillings School of Global Public Health, said it's "way too soon" for someplace like Harnett County to stop requiring masks in schools.

Only 33 percent of residents are fully vaccinated against coronavirus, ranking Harnett County 99th out of the state's 100 counties. The statewide average is 51 percent.

The district reports 162 students and staff are currently infected with the virus, and nearly 1,000 others are quarantined because of possible exposure. A cluster of infections was reported last week at Overhills High School, and the school remained on a state list of school-related clusters this week.

“Oh gosh, what are we going to see there in the coming weeks because this is a terrible idea to me?” Gralinski said. “Things just don’t make sense to me right now.”

A mother of two Harnett County public school students agreed.

"Point blank, a mask mandate helps the situation, and removing it there is no way the numbers can get better," she said, asking not to be identified for fear of harassment.

“The same people who want to have choice on the matter are the same people that might not fully believe in the vaccine and might believe in some misinformation about it and not believe in the real COVID numbers," she said.

Her sons will continue wearing masks at school, she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health and Human Services both still recommend that unvaccinated individuals wear masks indoors. The ABC Science Collaborative, which studies pandemic-related policies, has noted that, when schools have a mask-optional policy, they will first see substantial quarantines, followed by substantial school transmission of the virus.

Harnett County Schools officials say both infections and quarantines have dropped in the last week. Cases statewide also have leveled off in recent weeks, leading some to believe that the surge from the virus' Delta variant is starting to slow.

But Gralinski noted that the surge isn't over.

"Even if we were at the peak, you need cases to come way back down before you can start taking away these measures like masking because, otherwise, they are going to shoot right back up," she said. “A lot of our kids are, unfortunately, getting infected, and we want that to stop.”

District officials said they plan to continue quarantining students and staff who test positive for 10 days, and they said they hope that more robust testing in school will allow them to shorten the quarantine time.

Meanwhile, a new state law requires school districts to review their mask policies monthly, so the board could reverse its stance again – it mandated masks in August after initially saying they were optional.

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