Mask wearing is top issue for new school year

Elementary school students line up to enter school for the first day of classes wearing masks in Richardson, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

ASHEBORO — Gov. Roy Cooper lifted a state requirement for schools to require masks in July, but he is ramping up pressure on local school boards to mandate masks instead.

Randolph County Schools was the fifth school system to make masks optional on July 20. Since then, a total of 62 systems voted to make masks optional. In Randolph County, Uwharrie Charter joined the county schools in making masks optional.

The Asheboro City Schools held their decision for the school board’s August 12 meeting. Just before the meeting, the school board members received a letter from Cooper urging the school to institute masks for all students and teachers, regardless of vaccine status. A divided school board voted 6-3 to require masks.

Of the 62 systems that voted to make masks optional, nine have reversed course. Many of those who changed cited Cooper’s pressure and the threat of school shutdowns.

The state’s guidance says that masked students who interact with other masked students will not be quarantined if a COVID case is found in their classroom or school. As of this week, 60 districts are requiring masks.

The Randolph County School Board met Monday night and board chairman Gary Cook reiterated the board’s commitment to making masks optional in the county’s largest school system. Cook said the county schools had also received a letter from Cooper urging a mask mandate. But, Cook said in his meeting opening statement, keeping masks optional will be a shared task by all stakeholders. “If we continue to try this option that we have [masks optional] we’re going to have to have a lot of help,” said Cook. “Teachers, parents, students are going to have wash their hands, hand sanitizer every time you see it. Stay home if you’re sick, Teachers stay home if you’re sick.”

Cook also stressed that the board’s policies and desire to make masks optional could be superseded by Cooper. “It kind of makes me feel like we’re being backed into a corner using our kids,” said Cook. “I certainly hare to see us have to mask up our kids. I hope we get the opportunity to try it. The governor can go back and mandate the masks, and it’s out of our hands.”

Following Cook’s opening comments, the school board heard from several public comments with a mix of parents supporting and opposing having masks be optional. Other commentors urged the board to not require the COVD vaccine. Individual board members responded that they would not require teachers to receive the vaccine but no vote was taken.

Superintendent Stephen Gainey provided a detailed overview of the system’s plan. Gainey reiterated that masks are optional for students and staff. He added that students riding buses are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings.

Gainey also said that six feet of distance was expected and that school field trips were cancelled until further notice. He added that schools would not have grade-level or school wide assemblies and that the system would not incentivize attendance or perfect attendance so that students and parents would stay home if they felt sick. He reminded the board that the system was not allowing visitors into school buildings until further notice. One exception to that rule is that parents will be allowed to walk Kindergartners to class for the first five days of school, and first-graders can have their parents accompany them to class the first two days of school. Gainey said first-grade parents were deprived of an opportunity last year to walk their Kindergartners into school.

Extracurricular activities, including sports, will be on a regular schedule. “This is how we’re starting,” said Gainey.

Gainey said his primary goals were five days per week of instruction, extracurricular activities operating at regular levels, and students able to eat in cafeterias. In an op-ed in the North State Journal last week, Gainey outlined those goals and said the system’s attention “will be focused on a return to the basics of school as the students arrive on school campuses throughout the school system.”

Following Gainey’s presentation to the board, Cook made it clear that the group was not reconsidering their July decision on masks. “We made the decision to go optional with the masks last month, and we’re not going to change it tonight,” said Cook. “We have no intentions of changing it.” Cook also reiterated that making masks optional did not mean the schools were opposed to masks. “The option, that’s a key word,” said Cook. “If you want to wear a mask, … that’s great, you should wear it.”


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