Wake County Schools

Wake County school board votes to continue mask mandate for 2021-22 school year

Posted August 3, 2021 6:36 p.m. EDT
Updated August 4, 2021 11:18 a.m. EDT

— Wake County Public School System students and employees will continue to wear face coverings at school, the county Board of Education voted Tuesday.

The measure approved on a 9-0 vote requires face coverings in all indoor pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school environments, including sports, band and other extracurricular activities.

The Board listened for more than an hour to opinions from parents on both sides of the debate during the Tuesday meeting's public comment period.

Dozens of people — both adults and children — gathered outside the district headquarters in Cary on Tuesday afternoon, standing in the rain to hold signs and speak in favor of and against the mask mandate, telling WRAL News they wanted to make a statement for the board and others watching. Written public comments for Tuesday’s meeting spanned 215 pages — 529 total comments, 482 of which concerned masks. A cursory glance at the document show numerous comments both in favor of and against the mask mandate.

Parents and community members were divided over science and proper interpretations of it. They were also divided over the fundamental question of personal liberty and how to delegate healthcare choices.

Those who oppose the mask mandate argued parents should have a choice over whether their child wears a mask, chiefly because of the comparatively better COVID-19 outcomes for children. Those who favor the mask mandate argued students’ choices not to wear a mask could threaten school safety for more people than just themselves, noting that children younger than 12 years old can't get a COVID-19 vaccine and can still suffer longer-term and more severe COVID-19 cases, even if they are far less likely to die form the disease.

“The bottom line is that children handle COVID very well,” said Will Langdon, a district father, citing children’s high survival rate from COVID-19. He added, “All I’m asking for is a choice.”

But others questioned focusing too much on survival rates.

“I wish far more for my children and my patients than just not being dead,” Audey Veach, a district mother and pediatrician, told the board.

The American Association of Pediatrics reports a death rate of 0% to 0.03% for children in the 43 states, two territories and New York City that reported data.

In the end, board members said masks — of any range of protection — are the only real protection the school district has for the youngest grade levels, where children cannot receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Several board members said they would approve the mask mandate as a means of mitigating the number of students who must leave in-person instruction to quarantine.

“This is about keeping kids in schools, reducing the quarantine time, and making sure our kids are in school receiving high quality Instruction,” Board Member Heather Scott said.

Under current quarantine guidelines established at the county, state and national level, even an unvaccinated person wearing a mask would have to quarantine if they came into close contact with a COVID-19-positive person who wasn’t wearing one.

The district’s protocols for how children who must quarantine or isolate can learn next year aren’t as simple as last year, when quarantined and isolated students could log onto virtual academy. For the 2021-22 school year, spots for virtual academy are limited and, in an effort to keep teachers from simultaneously teaching virtual and in-person students, there will be no overlap of virtual and in-person classes.

The board made its decision during a period of rising cases of the novel coronavirus. While a majority of Wake County’s residents — 62% — have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers Wake County to have a “high” transmission rate, the most severe rating.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking of all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status. In its school guidance, the agency notes “substantial” or “high” community transmission rates as reasons to prompt a school or district to require masks.

The Wake County Public School System has had 124 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases in the past week. Of those, 18 are employees and 106 are students.

The so-called “Delta” variant of the virus is more than twice as infectious as the original strain of COVID-19 that started the pandemic in the United States a year and a half ago.

But more and more North Carolina school districts are making masks optional. At least 42 had done so as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the North Carolina School Board Association, which maintains a database tracking school mask policies. Another 20 other than Wake County have voted to require them, primarily only indoors.

A handful of districts making masks optional are still requiring them on buses. One district is making masks optional only for ninth-12th grade students and adults.

Dozens of districts could set new policies on masks in the coming weeks, as boards of education meet prior to the start of the traditional calendar school year.

The Wake County Board of Education met at 3 p.m. Tuesday for a work session, discussing a possible continuation of the mask mandate for nearly two hours.

During that meeting, they heard from the Wake County Public Health and the ABC Science Collaborative about the issue.

The ABC Collaborative recommended masks for all people inside school, regardless of vaccination status, including for all indoor athletic activities and all extracurricular activities (unless they are vaccinated). Without vaccination, the Collaborative recommended twice weekly COVID-19 testing for student-athletes and students in other extracurricular activities.

During the meeting, Duke University Professor of Pediatrics Dr. Danny Benjamin, who has helped lead the Collaborative's work, compared schools without masks to “chickenpox parties,” calling them “COVID parties.” Parents used to throw chickenpox parties prior to the chickenpox vaccine, believing a relatively harmless infection would provide lifetime immunity, which evidence does not contradict. COVID-19 infection does not provide lifetime immunity to the virus, and numerous people have been infected at least twice, often with different variants of the virus.

After consultation with the ABC Science Collaborative and the Wake County Public Health, district officials suggested a high bar for reconsidering a mask mandate:

  • 10 cases per capita — a feat that the county has not reached since the pandemic began
  • 70% to 90% vaccination rate among the school population
  • 28 days (two incubation cycles) of continued “significant” decline in cases.

Those benchmarks struck some board members as ambitious and some asked for more clear benchmarks, supported by research, to help the school district ultimately get rid of the mask mandate.

“At future meetings we need to talk about what is the exit plan,” Board Member Chris Heagarty said, to which a handful of audience members chorused “yes.”

But the board needs more input on what the conditions need to be and “hear good scientific data” in the coming weeks and months.

Changing the mask policy isn’t like opening up school to more in-person learning last year, he said, because opening up schools was more of a matter of committing staff resources to do it as health research supported it.

Board Member Christine Kushner also said she hoped the district could soon revisit mask-wearing at high grade levels, where children 12 years old and older can receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Experts estimate a vaccine for children 5 years older to 11 years old won’t be available until December, at the earliest, because health officials are, unlike for other age groups, evaluating a different dosage of the vaccines in trial groups.

Board Member Karen Carter asked how often the district would be updating the board on its ongoing study of COVID-19 for possible reconsideration of policies.

Superintendent Cathy Q. Moore said that would occur at least quarterly but likely not monthly. District officials would be prepared to present before the board at the board’s request, however, or if pandemic conditions changed significantly.

Carter also asked numerous questions about district preparations and plans for accommodating certain students or activities with a mask mandate, asking if the district had formed plans for eating breakfasts and lunches with so many more children in school or purchased enough clear face masks for teachers of students with hearing impairments.

Updated plans for eating and extracurricular activities are in the works, district officials said.

Wake County Schools Asst. Superintendent Paul Koh said the decision for the mask mandate was made based off guidance but not anything mandated from the state.

"There no longer are explicit statewide requirements about what we must do, rather the toolkit has been updated to recommend what health measures [we] should or could follow," he said.

Wake County parent Paula Bullock opposes the mask mandate.

"I guess we'll just have to do it for my kids to go to school," she said. "It's not fair and should be optional."

Bullock stood alongside her children in the rain in protest of a universal mask mandate. Hundreds of adults and children gathered outside district headquarters, holding signs in favor or against the mandate.

Bullock's high-school-age child, Taylor, isn't a fan of the ruling.

"I should be able to do what I want with my body," Bullock said. "I should not be forced to put on a mask."

Taylor Bullock's brother, Austin, is in third grade and says breathing in masks is a challenge.

"I can't have a mask break and it's super hard to breathe," he said.

A handful of physicians, including Dr. Rasheeda Monroe, urged the board to continue requiring masks in schools.

"Out of 100,000 kids, five may get COVID and die. Who are we playing Russian Roulette with? Are we really here to protect our children? If that's really our highest priority, then the best way to do that is universal masking."

Parent Natalie Bickrell says she can get behind the decision.

"We are all a little inconvenienced by them," she said. "I would say if we had a choice, we wouldn't necessarily be wearing them, but the reason we're doing it is to keep others safe."

Wake County has 62% of its population with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 58% fully vaccinated. Durham, Wake and Orange are the most vaccinated counties in central NC.

Other counties have recently decided to enact a mask mandate, as well, including Lee and Nash counties as of Monday.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools also voted unanimously Monday to require masks for students and staff.

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