BY KARISSA MILLER
After listening to emotional pleas from parents and community members who spoke out against requiring masks in schools, the Iredell-Statesville Schools Board of Education voted on Monday to extend the district’s mask mandate for students and staff until their next board meeting in November.
School boards across North Carolina are required to hold a public vote every month on their masking policies under state law.
Prior to the vote, Superintendent Jeff James first asked the board to approve a resolution regarding a request to change the provisions to the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit. The board voted unanimously to approve the resolution.
James is hoping other districts will band together on this issue. Most importantly, I-SS is seeking flexibility on some of the COVID-19 toolkit rules, which officials say make life difficult on staff, students and their families.
The actions outlined in the resolution include:
• Redefining “close contact” regarding school-aged children to mean being within three feet of a positive individual for a period of 15 minutes or more within a 24-hour period, regardless of whether the student or positive individual are wearing a face covering.
• Allowing asymptomatic students, who are determined to be close contacts to a positive individual, to remain in school by choosing to undergo appropriate diagnostic testing.
• Providing multiple ways to ensure in-person learning and explore ways to make the use of face coverings more flexible while maintaining appropriate COVID-19 safety precautions.
I-SS Chief of Strategic Planning and Student Services Boen Nutting also shared statistics and other metrics for the school district, which showed that the number of students and staff infected with COVID-19 continues to remain low and steady, as are the number of people who are required to quarantine.
From October 1-7, the district reported 47 confirmed COVID-19 cases in students, representing less than 1 percent of the student population. During the same time, 161 students were quarantined from school contacts, representing less than 1 percent of the student population.
Contract Tracing Discussion and Vote
School board member Bill Howell made a motion for I-SS to quit contract tracing. This motion was seconded by Bryan Shoemaker.
James and board attorney Dean Shatley led a lengthy and heated discussion of the pros and cons of I-SS’ current efforts to help the Iredell County Health Department in their contract tracing efforts.
Shatley said that a school’s administration would still have to be involved in helping the health department with contract tracing even if I-SS’ school nurses were no longer involved in the day-to-day process.
Furthermore, James said that right now because I-SS helps with contact tracing that students can generally return to school within seven days. Changes to contact tracing could mean students would be out for 14 days.
The motion failed by a 5-2 vote. Howell and Shoemaker cast the lone votes in support of Howell’s motion.
Mask Optional Discussion and Vote
Howell then made a motion to make masks optional, which was also seconded by Shoemaker.
“Over the last month, I have received hundreds of emails. I have emails from parents who want to take the masks off and want to keep them on. The one thing that was lacking from the parents who want to keep masks on is scientific evidence,” Howell said.
Cloth masks do not stop the virus, he said.
“There is no fabric that can stop them. One of our speakers say a gas mask might, but we aren’t going to wear gas masks,” he added.
Howell continued by saying that at college football games where there are crowds of 80,000 people and up you don’t see 50 people wearing masks.
“I’d like to hear the Covid breakdown because they keep coming to the games. Somebody is not getting sick,” he said. “I know that the toolkit is a trap for public schools to do the job that our governor wouldn’t do. I cannot continue to mask our children.”
Shoemaker said that there’s a lot that we still don’t know about COVID-19.
“Mask mandates, to me, aren’t that effective. Like Mr. Howell said we’re playing the game and we’re forced to based on what the rules say,” Shoemaker said.
Shoemaker mentioned that it was a delicate balance and that his children’s school got closed down at the beginning of the school year when masks were optional.
If the number of cases continue to go down along with all the other metrics, he explained, “next month I will vote to make masks optional. I just don’t feel like we’re there yet.”
Board member Doug Knight said that he was in agreement with much of what Shoemaker said.
Chairman Martin Page said, “If we’re going to keep our kids in school then we are going to have to continue with the masks. “
He said that he’s ready to get rid of the masks, too.
Board member Sam Kennington thanked the speakers for their ability to articulate their views during the meeting.
“I will vote to continue with the mask mandate for the next month, but I want you to know how much I appreciate everything you’ve done tonight,” Kennington said.
Vice Chairman Todd Carver said: “I think we all agree that children should be in school. I agree that there are growing gaps that we need to address.”
District principals have said the masks play a key role in keeping children in school, he said.
“Here, for me, the primary goal is keeping schools open. Right now, masks enable us to keep the schools open,” Carver said. “At this time, I have to vote to keep the schools open.”
The motion failed to make masks optional failed by a 6-1 vote. Howell cast the lone vote in support of his motion.
Public Comment Period
Most of Monday night’s speakers spoke out against the mask mandate. Many claimed that they had data to prove that masks weren’t effective and that they were physically and psychologically damaging to students.
Parent Joe Carter accused the school board of “playing the CDC game.” He said that they get grant money and that they have to play by their rules.
“I don’t think it’s fair that our kids are the pawns while you play their game,” Carter said.
He said that when his daughter contracted COVID-19 that she was terrified.
“She thought she was going to die,” Carter said, explaining that the teachers and staff at her school were to blame for his daughter’s emotional distress.
He accused Nutting of playing God for refusing a medical exemption and then closed by telling the board that there’s a storm coming that’s full of lions — not sheep.
Medical exemptions now must be signed by a health care provider.
Parent Kelli Harris said students are having anxiety, depression and not wanting to go to school because of the masks. She also said that she wants to support I-SS and move through the challenges together.
“I hope that we move through these challenges and get the masks off our kids and get things back to normal,” Harris said.
Around 40 people attended the meeting; about 30 of them did not wear masks.
Following last month’s ruckus that ended with a Mooresville man’s arrest, there were several law enforcement officers on hand in case of trouble.
Also, the board organized additional safety and security measures so that attendees could feel safe and voted to give each speaker three minutes to be heard rather than two minutes.
The crowd, while passionate during their speeches, remained civil, respectful and calm during the meeting.
RESOLUTION REQUESTING TO CHANGE
PROVISIONS OF THE
StrongSchools NC Public Health Toolkit
WHEREAS, on October 5, 2021, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services revised the Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit (the “Toolkit”), leaving the definition of “close contact” unchanged;
WHEREAS, a “close contact” is defined as any student that was within six (6) feet of an individual positive for COVID-19 for a period of fifteen (15) minutes or more over a 24-hour period;
WHEREAS, the Toolkit requires schools to exclude, or quarantine, a student from school if the student is determined to be a close contact, unless both the exposed student and the positive individual were wearing a face covering; and
WHEREAS, over the course of the 2020-2021 school year, the rate of transmission of COVID-19 was low within Iredell-Statesville Schools and the analysis shows that most infections in children occurred outside of school and that numerous exclusions are occurring when students are not wearing face coverings and are within six feet of each other.
THEREFORE, be it resolved by the Iredell-Statesville Board of Education, that the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services allow the Board of Education to take the following actions:
1. Redefine “close contact” regarding school-aged children to mean being within three (3) feet of a positive individual for a period of fifteen (15) minutes or more within a 24-hour period, regardless of whether the student or positive individual are wearing a face covering.
2. Allow asymptomatic students, who are determined to be close contacts to a positive individual, to remain in school by choosing to undergo appropriate diagnostic testing.
3. Provide multiple ways to ensure in-person learning and explore ways to make the use of face coverings more flexible while maintaining appropriate COVID-19 safety precautions.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services should provide multiple ways to ensure in-person learning and explore ways to make the use of face coverings more flexible while maintaining appropriate COVID-19 safety precautions.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and Board of Education work collaboratively to monitor data to determine the impact of the requested changes to the Toolkit and develop appropriate state-wide protocols based off this endeavor.
The Iredell Statesville Board of Education invites other school systems to ask for support from our state in finding additional means to ensure in-person learning and minimize exclusions/quarantines, while still protecting the health of students, employees and visitors.
Adopted October 11, 2021.
Iredell-Statesville Board of Education