After initially making masks optional, Rowan-Salisbury Schools now requires them

SALISBURY, N.C. — Students across the Charlotte area have either already headed back to class or are heading back next week, and many parents are concerned about whether their children’s schools will have mask mandates.

At the Rowan-Salisbury School Board meeting Wednesday afternoon, school leaders reversed course and voted to require masks indoors for all students, staff members and visitors.

The board voted 5-2 in favor of a mandatory mask policy for the next two weeks.

Rowan-Salisbury Schools was one of the first districts in our area to head back to class last Wednesday. Students have been back in class with masks optional since school leaders had originally decided on a mask-optional policy.

Since then, the district said it has seen COVID-19 cases among students and employees rise.

Students who ride the bus will also be required to wear a mask. The school district said it would not require any proof of vaccination.

Reporter Tina Terry was at the school board meeting on Wednesday, along with many parents. There were mixed emotions about the decision to make masking mandatory for both students and employees indoors.

“I would never ever tell another parent how to parent their child, but I don’t want anyone to tell me that I don’t have a choice on how to parent mine,” parent Suzanne Boyd said.

Boyd was one of many outspoken parents at the emergency board meeting, disappointed that school leaders voted to change the district’s mask-optional policy.

“Just now starting the school year off, we’re starting off on the wrong foot,” parent Alisha Byrd-Clark said.

Board members made the change after hearing the latest COVID-19 data. Numbers shared show 26 staff members and 35 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since school started last week.

Those cases have caused 64 employees and 754 students to be quarantined. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines advise people should quarantine if they’ve been in close contact with someone who had COVID-19 unless they’ve been fully vaccinated.

Rowan County’s health director said unvaccinated children exposed to the virus in the county must quarantine for 10 days. But she said if everyone wears a mask, only the person who tested positive will need to quarantine.

“I voted for it being optional ... and I felt like I wanted to give that choice, but I have seen too many people who weren’t able to stay in school due to the quarantine numbers,” school board member Kevin Jones said.

Grandparent Anthony Smith said he supports the decision to make masks mandatory.

“This is about health, safety, keeping our kids in school,” he said.

The school board said it will meet again next Monday. Channel 9 will have the latest if the board discusses the mask policy again.

‘We need to unite around whatever strategy that is appropriate’

Last Wednesday morning, Terry was at North Rowan Middle School and spoke with the superintendent about the expectations for the school year.

Superintendent Tony Watlington said it’s important to get beyond the opinions of mask-wearing and focus on keeping kids safe in the classroom.

“Safety and education is a community responsibility,” he told Channel 9. “We all have to work together, even when we have differences of opinions. We need to unite around whatever strategy that is appropriate.”

During a tour at North Rowan Middle, Channel 9 saw that most students inside were wearing masks. Watlington said wearing a face covering is just one of many things they are doing to promote safety.

He also said families who want to vaccinate their children should do so, and that kids should social-distance and keep up good hygiene practices.

Zalaiyah Carter is expecting to have a successful 8th grade year.

“Stay in school, focus on my work, and make good grades,” she said.

She and other Rowan-Salisbury students are happy to be back in the classroom and many hope to rebound after months of virtual learning brought on by COVID-19.

“It was kinda hard because I didn’t have a teacher to stand there and correct and help me,” Carter told Channel 9.

The school administration said plans are in place to help with any learning loss.

“We’re developing personalized plans to give kids what they need so they can get over gaps and progress forward,” said Principal Jonathan Clark.

But Carter’s mother, and other parents, wonder is those plans will be side-lined by COVID cases. Some question whether the school district’s mask-optional policy will cause the more contagious delta variant to spread faster, interrupting in-person class time.

“Hopefully it’s safe enough to where they can go in and stay, but I don’t know -- I’m having doubts,” said Nicole Carter.

The president of the nation’s largest teacher’s union voiced her support for a vaccine mandate for teachers. In North Carolina, the state teacher’s union said they don’t have a position on the mandates at this point.

“We support masking in schools. We do support testing, routine testing, especially for those people who are unvaccinated. And those measures right now we believe can continue to allow us to have in-person school safely,” said Tamika Walker Kelly with the NC Association of Educators.

Rowan County’s health director said COVID-19 cases are currently higher than they were at the start of last school year. She’s encouraging mask-wearing by all county citizens whenever they are inside. She also encourages getting vaccinated.

About 42% of the county’s population is fully vaccinated, and about 17% of children 12-17 are vaccinated.

(WATCH BELOW: Masks now required at Mooresville graded schools after first week back)