CMS board votes to require masking at school as NC COVID cases surge

CHARLOTTE — The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board voted on Friday morning that students and staff will be required to wear masks in schools when they return next month, regardless of their vaccination status.

All K-12 students as well as staff -- except certain exemptions -- will be required to wear universal face coverings indoors and on buses. The mandate will be reviewed at the end of the quarter, or when local metrics and guidance suggest it be revised.

Face coverings will remain optional outdoors on all school sites.

The school board voted to approve the mask mandate by a vote of 8-1, with board member Sean Strain being the only dissenting vote.

“This decision aligns with local and state guidance, as well as national guidelines, which address the Delta variants of COVID-19,” said Elyse Dashew, chair of the Board of Education. “The infection numbers in our county are cause for serious concern -- and significant precautions to protect our students and staff.”

On Thursday, CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston sent a letter to the Board of Education laying out his recommendation for mask-wearing in schools. Winston said based on Mecklenburg County data and health guidance, “the district’s senior leadership team, upon consultation with the District’s COVID-19 Response Team and MCPH, recommends approving universal face covering requirements for all students, staff, volunteers and visitors inside CMS facilities for the 2021-2022 school year.”

At Friday’s meeting, Winston said CMS is currently not in a position to require all CMS staff to be fully vaccinated but that the district is looking at options to make sure staff members get the vaccine, if they have not already done so.

One option Winston said CMS might consider involves that unvaccinated employees be tested frequently, among other requirements. He said they are looking into how feasible an option could be. The CMS board will discuss how to encourage vaccination, how to handle COVID screening and other COVID safety measure at their Aug. 10 meeting.

Winston said Friday’s mask mandate is the best way to control the spread of the COVID-19 delta variant and to minimize the need for possible quarantines.

“We believe this is the best way to make sure that our students get maximum in-person time this school year,” he said. “We know in-person is how most of our students learn best, and teaching and learning is our mission.”

New guidance from NCDHHS this school year states that students who are close contacts with someone who tested positive in a school setting are not required to quarantine if students were appropriately masked during the exposure at school. CMS staff said school districts are not authorized under current law to transition students to remote learning during periods of quarantine.

“The Delta variant is causing alarm for public health officials and medical professionals. It’s more contagious. It’s apparently more dangerous in terms of severity,” Winston said. “Infection rates around the country, in our state and in our area are rising rapidly. Hospitalizations are likewise increasing at rapid rates. Staff and student health and safety are our highest priority. For that reason, we made the recommendation, and our Board supported and voted for it.”

Strain, the only board member to vote against the mandate, asked, “What problem are we trying to solve?”

He pointed to data that show 2% of hospitalizations in North Carolina are children younger than 18. He told the board and the crowd that he believes COVID is real and that vaccines and masks work, but said he does not believe masking kids is necessary.

“If vaccines work, then I believe we are at much lower risk for illness and death. So, from that perspective, I’m back to a risk assessment question: What is the risk to kids who have not been eligible? And as I look at those numbers, those numbers are negligible,” Strain said.

Dr. Meg Sullivan with Mecklenburg County Public Health addressed the board on Friday, saying the tool of vaccine is significant but that a significant percentage of CMS students cannot get vaccinated. She also discussed concerns of the contagious delta variant.

“We have an incredibly highly contagious strain in our community that is causing significant illness and hospitalization. We are seeing our numbers going up,” Sullivan said.

She said around 20% of those cases are individuals under the age of 18.

“We have incredibly clear data that masks work,” she said.

Sullivan said universal masking will reduce the need to quarantine students who are exposed to a COVID case.

In supporting the superintendent’s recommendation, board member Ruby Jones said, “I hate wearing this mask, but I do it because I care about other people. And I’m not selfish.”

Board member Rhonda Cheek, who also voted for the mask mandate, noted that she’s a nurse who wants kids in classrooms and that she was supporting the mandate as the best way to keep kids in school.

“In light of those two things, the lack of remote option from the legislature and the ability to maintain in-person education even in the event of the exposure if you are masking, I am going to support this,” Cheek said.

The board noted that staff and students who consistently wear masks do not have to quarantine after COVID-19 exposure unless they show symptoms. Unlike last year, there won’t be a remote-learning option for students in quarantine.

“Safety is sacred, and also seat time in schools is sacred,” Dashew said before voting for the mandate.

In an announcement Thursday afternoon, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper recommended but did not mandate masks for people who are vaccinated in areas of high and substantial community spread. The governor also updated his guidance for masks in schools, recommending all students and staff wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status.

“Look at where the numbers are,” Cooper said. “Look at where the numbers are in your county and think about the danger students could face.”

The recommendation came days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed course and released guidance urging everyone, including fully vaccinated people, to wear masks indoors in areas where transmission is high.

“The superintendent has done a quick turnaround,” Dashew said Thursday night.

In the memo, Winston cited data from state health officials saying that only 35% of Mecklenburg County residents between the ages of 12 and 17 are fully vaccinated.

He also mentioned that the county’s COVID-19 positivity rate has increased from 1.9% on June 11 to 8.4% as of July 23.

Mecklenburg County’s Health Director Gibbie Harris is in favor of the recommendation for all students and staff to wear masks. She held a news conference earlier this week, saying the county falls in the CDC’s category of an area with high transmission, meaning everyone should wear masks indoors.

A mother Channel 9 spoke with agrees with the recommendation.

“You’re just taking a big chance with children. Children are like precious, you know what I mean? I think they should be mandatory,” Nyasia Carr said about masks. “I agree with him 100 percent.”

According to Winston’s memo, the indoor mask requirement should be reviewed at the end of each academic quarter or when local metrics and evolving guidance suggest that safety protocols, like masks, should be revised.

The CMS board reviewed the recommendation at their meeting on Friday morning. There was no public comment before the vote, but Dashew said the Board of Education has been flooded with calls and emails all week.

Many upset parents who did not want to see a mask mandate approved attended Friday’s meeting, holding signs and expressing their frustration, interrupting the board several times to voice their opinions.

“A lot of doctors are weighing in, and they are concerned about the delta variant,” Dashew said. “And they are urging us to take it seriously and exercise caution.”

Dashew said the Board of Education’s top priority is keeping kids in the classroom with in-person learning all year.

“We’ve got to do everything we can to avoid sending kids home if they have been exposed,” she said. “And if everyone is wearing masks, we won’t have to do that as much.”

Despite the CDC guidance, Cooper is not issuing a mask mandate for the general public. A spokesperson for Mecklenburg County did not respond to Channel 9′s question if one will be considered on a local level.

Currently, in the Charlotte region, Anson County is the only other school district mandating masks for students when they return next month. All others have voted for masks to be optional.

(WATCH: CMS mom pushes for virtual learning option for youngest students)

North Carolina reverses course, urges masks in all schools

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday decided to reverse course from guidance he issued last week and will now urge all K-12 public school students and staff to be masked, even if they have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

The Democratic governor and the state’s top public health official, Dr. Mandy Cohen, pinned much blame on unvaccinated people and renewed calls for them to get the shot.

“Our trends have turned sharply in the wrong direction,” Cooper said at a news conference. “Unvaccinated people are driving this resurgence and getting themselves and other people sick.”

But at a time when nearly all available metrics show spread of the virus at its worst levels in months, Cooper said he’ll let the statewide mask mandate expire on Friday.

In the two weeks prior to Cooper’s announcement last week that he’d let the statewide mask mandate expire and ease masking requirements for high school students starting July 30, cases had already more than tripled and hospitalizations had gone up over 69% — a move that frustrated the state’s largest lobbying group for teachers. It also confused some Democratic lawmakers and prompted several school districts to make masks optional for all K-12 students.

“I can’t get into the governor’s mind on why he felt that way,” state Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat representing Hoke and Scotland counties, said in an interview following Cooper’s decision to ease restrictions. “I will be honest about it. I’m just a little concerned with that because it’s kind of hard to tell people to take the masks off but get the shots. I hope that he can rethink that just a little bit because it will send a mixed message.”

Nineteen school districts have decided to make mask wearing optional for K-12 students, according to an Education NC analysis. Pupils under age 12 are not currently eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

While data has shown minimal transmission within schools, researchers recommend continued mask wearing.

Since Cooper’s announcement, spread of the virus has continued to skyrocket, largely fueled by the more contagious delta variant and those who are not fully vaccinated.

New daily COVID-19 cases surpassed 3,200 on Thursday for the first time since Feb. 25. More than 10% of test results on Sunday came back positive, the worst positivity rate since Feb. 1. Additionally, 1,141 people are currently hospitalized in North Carolina due to the virus — the highest count since April 22.

“Our trends are accelerating at an alarmingly fast rate,” Cohen said, adding that “this is a pandemic now of the unvaccinated.”

North Carolina is not unique.

The surge is happening across the country, which prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reverse course this week by recommending vaccinated people in most counties wear masks in public indoor settings.

The latest CDC data has all but 14 of North Carolina’s 100 counties showing “substantial” or “high” levels of transmission because at least 50 new cases per 100,000 people emerged over the past seven days. This means nearly all of the roughly 5 million fully vaccinated North Carolinians should continue wearing masks when they are indoors and out in the public.

Top North Carolina Republicans worry the abrupt shift in recommendations from state and federal health officials will prompt fewer residents to come in for a vaccine because they’ll still need to wear masks indoors.

“All we’re getting from public health authorities are shifting rules and perpetual panic,” Republican Senate leader Phil Berger’s office said in a news release. “The CDC offers more consistent guidance on consuming raw cookie dough than on masks. That’s a problem and here’s why: If the CDC erodes its credibility on masks, then it risks eroding its credibility on the far more important message of vaccines.”

Still, there were some signs of optimism that more people would come in for a shot, particularly as students prepare to return to school, adults grow increasingly worried about the delta variant and employers compel workers to get vaccinated.

More than 60,000 North Carolinians came in for a first dose of a vaccine last week, which is the highest weekly count since the week of May 24.

While the plans have drawn substantial pushback from top Republican lawmakers concerned about individual rights, 14 state-run health care facilities and several major hospital systems, including WakeMed Health & Hospitals, are compelling workers to get a COVID-19 shot if they want to remain employed.

Cooper announced Thursday that cabinet agency workers will be asked to show proof they were vaccinated. Unvaccinated officials will be required to wear a mask and get tested weekly, he said.

(WATCH BELOW: CDC recommends vaccinated people wear masks in areas of ‘high transmission’)