WATAUGA — In a 3-2 vote on July 26, the Watauga County Board of Education is making masks optional for all students, but reserves the right to change that decision. Masks are still required for all students riding on a school bus, per federal guidelines.
Board members Jay Fenwick and Marshall Ashcraft voted against making masks optional for students while Steve Combs, Gary Childers and Jason Cornett voted for it. The vote to make masks optional for students goes against recommendations from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The board also voted unanimously that masks are required for all employees while in any Watauga County School owned facilities or vehicles, but they can be exempt from wearing a mask if they voluntarily provide proof of vaccination or otherwise qualify for a legal or medical exemption.
For indoor extracurricular events, the board did not take any action, but strongly encourages masking for those who are not vaccinated. Visitors or volunteers who will have close contact with students will be expected to wear a mask unless they provide verification of their vaccine status. In essence, visitors and volunteers close to students will be treated like employees.
The motion to make masks optional for students passed despite almost every board member agreeing that they thought — while hoping it wouldn’t — COVID-19 cases and transmission would rise in the county in the future.
While masks are optional for WCS students, the quarantining requirements from NCDHHS will remain enforced. This includes that if an unvaccinated student is found to be in close contact with a COVID-19 positive person and both were not wearing a mask, they will have to quarantine. If an unvaccinated student is wearing a mask and comes in contact with a COVID-19 positive student not wearing a mask, they still have to quarantine.
Those quarantine requirements are lessened for students who are vaccinated. Those requirements can be found at covid19.ncdhhs.gov/media/164/open.
Quarantining for students who do not wear masks and are not vaccinated is longer and more comprehensive than for students who wear masks or are vaccinated.
As of July 26, NCDHHS reports that 811 people between 12-17 have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in Watauga County.
Before they voted, the board members deliberated for more than three-and-a-half hours and heard from WCS head nurse Shelly Klutz as well as AppHealthCare Health Director Jennifer Greene.
“The board did not make this decision lightly and took into consideration balancing the risks with protection of students, while also giving parents the flexibility of making masking decisions,” WCS Superintendent Scott Elliott said. “The board also made clear that they are willing to revisit this and reinstate a mask requirement if community conditions deteriorate and that masking is necessary to prevent outbreaks and the spread of the virus in school.”
Elliott said that he strongly encourages anyone who is unvaccinated to wear a mask, and those who are eligible to be vaccinated, to get vaccinated. According to Elliott, more than 85 percent of all employees are vaccinated and more than 90 percent of WCS teachers are vaccinated.
While Greene was speaking, she mentioned that the county has seen an increase of cases and hospitalizations just in the past few weeks. Greene said that part of the reason the county is seeing more cases is due to the Delta variant, which is 80 percent of all cases in the southeast region of the United States.
Most cases the health department has seen has been in those who are unvaccinated, but there has been breakthrough cases — meaning people who are fully vaccinated tested positive for COVID-19.
Greene said that it’s important that the community understands the vaccine may not prevent all infections, but it is intended to prevent severe illness and death.
Greene said she could not recommend anything to the board but to follow the school toolkit recommended by NCDHHS, which recommends masks for K-8 and for those who are unvaccinated in 9-12.
“That is what the CDC is telling us based on science,” Greene said. “That is what NCDHHS is telling us. I know that even in my own family I’ve got some people who are not a fan of wearing masks so I realized that it’s quite unpopular.”
Greene said she thinks the reason there was not a lot of COVID-19 spread in the school system last year was because of the due diligence of contact tracing, but also because of mask wearing. According to Klutz, the school system had 263 students test positive for COVID-19 from Aug. 12 to July 2 and 99 employees test positive.
Already, Klutz said the school nurses have started to see an uptick in case investigations to find close contacts from someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Last year — when masks were required for everyone — nurses conducted more than 2,524 contact tracing investigations and more than 500 staff contact investigations. More than 1,150 students were quarantined in the school system at least once during the school year, while more than 364 staff were quarantined.
After both Klutz and Greene gave their presentations and answered any questions from the board, the board’s attorney — Chris Campbell — provided an update on what the board could do based on the recommendations in the NCDHHS toolkit released on July 21.
He said that the board had plenty of options regarding the recommendations including not taking any action, which would have made it so masks were not required in schools since the statewide mask mandate ends on July 30. He also advised the board they were immune from lawsuits as they were making good faith decisions for the district.
After the board heard from the health officials, they began to debate on what to do about the upcoming school year, which begins on Aug. 16.
Ashcraft started the discussion saying he was not comfortable requiring masks or not requiring masks for everyone. He said that if they made masks optional, there should be clear standards for when the board should tighten up on mask wearing if cases begin to tick up in the community.
Combs and Cornett both were clear from the beginning of the discussion about their intentions of wanting to make mask wearing optional. Combs said he thought it should be optional because it would be easier to ask people to go back to wearing masks fully if they already knew that could happen if cases begin to rise.
Cornett also liked the optional plan because he thought that people should have the choice, especially since they have the choice right now to get the vaccine.
“I like choices,” Cornett said. “I like it when people do what they feel comfortable doing and not try to put everyone in a box. Let them have a choice because if in the future, we do have to make a more difficult decision, we tried being reasonable.”
Cornett and Combs both said that they also felt that students wearing a mask again in school would be difficult, especially in a school with no air conditioning.
Fenwick was in favor of following the NCDHHS and CDC recommendations of requiring masks.
“I think that we were very successful last year,” Fenwick said. “We took a cautious yet conservative approach ourselves. I would like to see us sort of follow that.”
Fenwick added that he would rather the board start in a more safe setting and relax restrictions more after seeing what the data shows when students go back rather than start off relaxed.
“Bottomline, I just want to follow the advice of the medical professionals,” Fenwick said.
Childers said he had three major areas in how he came to the conclusion that he wanted to make masks optional for students. He said he wanted to follow the science, pay attention to the local data and then put those together to see what the common sense decision would be. In this case, he thought Watauga County data — which show 20 cases as of July 23 — meant they could make masks optional.
While the current numbers are low, Fenwick said that the board needs to think about where it will be in a month. Fenwick said the majority of the board agreed that they thought cases would increase in the coming months.
After Childers asked about COVID-19 transmission, Greene told the board that it’s accurate to say that transmission is low right now, the Delta variant — which is more transmissible — makes up a lot of the new cases.
“We have seen an uptick just in the last couple of weeks,” Greene said. “I hope that we will stay low.”
Before any motions were made, the board also discussed making it so if there was a need to require masks, the health department or Elliott would recommend it. The general consensus of the board, however, was that the decision should be one from the board and not be put on someone else.
Combs made the first motion to go optional with mask wearing while adding that Elliott, the health department and school nurses would notify the board of COVID-19 trends and and if the board should reconvene. That failed as no one seconded it, as the board wanted the decision to be solely on their shoulders.
The board then discussed the wording of making masks optional for students, which — after working through the exact wording — passed 3-2 with the understanding that the board would carefully follow the COVID-19 trends and look for Elliott’s COVID-19 updates each week. Childers made the motion, which was seconded by Combs.
The next scheduled meeting of the Watauga County Board of Education is on Aug. 9.