The Mooresville Graded School District Board of Education voted Tuesday night to return to a mask-optional policy for staff and students, effective Wednesday.

In a vote that passed 4 to 1, the board also voted to cease all contact-tracing efforts and stop requiring staff and students who are deemed a close contact of someone who tests positive for COVID-19 to stay home. MGSD staff and students who test positive for COVID-19 will be required to isolate for five days but will not be required to wear a face mask when they return to campus, according to the new policy.

Board member Rakeem Brawley cast the lone vote against the motion, which was offered by Kerry Pennell.

The vote came at the end of a nearly five-hour meeting.

Board member Deborah Marsh, one of the champions for the mask mandate imposed in January, conceded Tuesday that the public health protocols were having an adverse effect on education.

“It’s ridiculous we are sending people home who don’t have symptoms and who have not tested positive,” she said.

A dozen opponents of the mask mandate — which included an intermediate school student, a teacher, and several parents — waited nearly four hours for the public comment period.

Twelve speakers made impassioned pleas to drop the mandate, arguing that masks were ineffective for controlling the spread of COVID-19 and caused physical and emotional harm to students. Others contended that the mask mandates were tied federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Aubrey Davis Brown, a fourth-grader, told the board that wearing the mask all day causes headaches, makes her uncomfortable and makes learning difficult.

“Are any one of you expected to wear masks for up to 10 hours with a 15-minute break?” she asked.

Other critics of the mandate also said the board had no legal authority to impose quarantines or exclude students from school. One woman gave the board an ultimatum — end all mandates within 72 hours or face a federal lawsuit. “You’ve been served,” she said.

N.C. health officials recommend that staff and students who test positive for COVID-19 isolate for a minimum of five days and then wear a face mask for five days after returning to school.

Pennell declined to alter her motion to meet that guideline when Superintendent Stephen Mauney asked.

When asked by the superintendent if that would open up the district to a legal claim if a student or staff member became seriously ill or died after contracting COVID-19, board attorney Kevin Donaldson said that was a possibility.

On Tuesday, 69 MGSD staff and students were out of school due to a positive COVID-19 case or were excluded after being deemed a close contact of someone who tested positive.

The board is required by N.C. law to vote each month on face covering requirements. The next meeting is March 15.

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