WATAUGA — In a reversal from their last meeting on July 26, the Watauga County Board of Education voted unanimously Aug. 9 to require masks for all students and staff effective immediately.
Face coverings will be strongly encouraged but optional for middle and high school athletes during practice and competition, and the board reserves the right to direct staff to further restrict this flexibility for athletes if conditions warrant.
The vote came one day before a mask mandate was set to take place in Boone. The board had voted in a four-hour meeting on July 26 that masks would be optional for everyone. Board members at the time cited the current COVID-19 conditions in the county.
“Due to the growing rate of transmission and the increased contagiousness of the Delta variant, including recent examples of cases and quarantines among school aged children here in our community, and to minimize transmission of the virus and unnecessary quarantines of students and staff,” board member Steve Combs read in his motion. “I move that (effective immediately) we require indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, volunteers and visitors when inside any school owned facilities and vehicles, regardless of vaccination status.”
Exceptions would be made for employees who are in their offices, classrooms, or school owned vehicles while alone or only with members of their own households.
Since the July 26 vote to make masks optional took place, more than 100 new COVID-19 cases have been reported in Watauga County, according to AppHealthCare. The board voted after Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott provided an update on COVID-19 in the community. One of the updates included a new COVID-19 cluster involving a camp run by the county that had approximately five active cases and 35 people in quarantine as of Aug. 9.
Combs, who originally voted to make masks optional, made the motion to require masks indoors for everyone regardless of vaccination status.
He told the board at the July 26 meeting that he was excited about being able to move forward with an optional mask mandate for students and staff at the schools. But over the last two weeks, he said he had been doing a lot of praying and talking to nurses and that he thought making masks required for everyone would be safest for students, staff and the community.
Jason Cornett, who was also vocal for the optional mask option, seconded Combs’ motion.
Cornett said that the requirement of a mask is one of the hardest decisions he has made on the school board. He said that the decision to make masks optional was based on the data the board had at the time. One day after the board voted on July 26, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control updated its guidance to recommend that schools require masks for every one.
Board member Marshall Ashcraft, who voted against making masks optional, said that COVID-19 is a public health issue and that the public needs to be engaged in protecting others. He said that it’s really important “to take this step to extend the safety net to other people” who might be at higher risk for COVID-19. He said the only way to best protect people is to require masks.
Board Chair Gary Childers said that with the CDC recently moving Watauga County from moderate spread to substantial spread, it was time to reconsider. He mentioned that the CDC would probably soon move Watauga to a higher level of COVID-19 transmission, which drew nods from AppHealthCare Health Director Jennifer Greene, who was in attendance.
Childers said he has been influenced by many comments he received since the last vote. He said one comment he received was from a nurse and parent who spoke of her responsibility as a nurse. He said that the board “must be guided by the best expertise we can.”
Childers said he wants the board to follow the best path for students and staff.
There were more than 30 people in attendance at the meeting with many wearing white shirts with the words “protect children, wear masks.” Those in attendance broke out in applause after the board voted to require masks.
Mira Waits was the first person to speak to the board during the public comment period at the end of the meeting.
“As I shared with you in one of the many emails you received my youngest daughter was exposed to COVID-19 on her very first day of in-person kindergarten and quarantined,” Waits told the board. “If you ever have a chance to meet her you would quickly observe that this is a child who will never be particularly adept at social distancing. I firmly believe Watauga County Schools required masking protected my daughter at this time and it is with great relief that the same measures that protected her then will also be in place this fall with this very transmissible variant.”
Emily Smith addressed the board and said she had prepared a statement after talking to many people to ask the board to maintain their optional mask decision. She said that it used to be normal for children to stay home while sick and then feel better. She said getting sick was just part of childhood and that it wasn’t a smart choice to make a universal decision regarding masks.
“My children have staph infections on their face from wearing masks,” Smith said. “They’ve never had that problem before. My youngest daughter has a small speech impediment, and being in school and not being able to see facial expressions of her teachers and her peers it only exacerbated that.”
Annie Woodford spoke next and said she wanted to thank the board for their willingness to work for the community and following science. She said she lost an aunt to COVID-19 and that it gives her great hope that children will be wearing masks and not potentially bringing COVID-19 home and potentially spreading it to other people.
Sarah Donovan said on her behalf and her husband’s that she was grateful for the board for following science and making the mask mandate. She also wanted to address anti-mask sentiment and how it compared to rights. She said everyone has the right to not suffer preventable illnesses and people not suffering from COVID-19 is possible if everyone got on the same page. She said that before the decision, she was going to tell the board that she would be sending her children to school with masks and hoped other parents would do the same.
Sarah Bauler was the final person to speak to the board during public comment. She said she thought of masking as a seatbelt. She said it’s like a second layer of protection that’s after the airbag. She said that she believes the decision to require masks was protecting the children in the community.
The board of education is scheduled to next meet on Sept. 13.