At last night’s virtual emergency meeting, the Union County Board of Education received an update from staff which included alarming spikes in local COVID rates and pleas from the Public Health Director that the district require students and staff to wear masks in schools.
The board still voted 7-2 to keep masks optional.
Assistant Superintendent Jarrod McCraw presented the COVID update and informed the board about the following trends in Union County’s health:
Percent positivity rate:
June 18: 2.5%
August 18: 13.9%
New daily cases (7 day average):
June 18: 6.7/day
August 18: 125/day
5-18 year old age group:
July 18: 48 positive cases
July 25: 104 positive cases
August 1: 169 positive cases
McCraw also related his conversations with Union County Public Health Director Dennis Joyner, including Joyner’s strong recommendation that the district follow the face covering guidance in the NCDHHS Strong Schools toolkit, which he paraphrased as saying “All schools should require children and staff in schools K-12 to wear face coverings consistently when indoors. Schools should make masks universally required regardless of vaccination status.”
The assistant superintendent offered three reasons for asking the board to require masks. First, he cited public health concern over the increase in COVID numbers. Secondly, he mentioned that it would reduce the number of students having to miss school because of quarantine. Finally, he said masking would reduce the amount of time school nurses had to devote to contact tracing and allow them to focus on general health and wellness.
Board chair Melissa Merrell said it was her understanding that COVID numbers were actually trending downward. She expressed confusion over McCraw’s request that masks be required, saying that the number of children who were infected with the virus didn’t represent a significant number of overall cases:
“We’re in the business of educating students. And those students, we’ve been looking at ages 5-18, and that’s only 14% of this, you know, in your words not mine, trending upward.”
The board then entered closed session. Upon returning, a motion was made by board member John Kirkpatrick to heed district and health department recommendations and begin the year with students masked. The motion failed 7-2 with only Joe Morreale and Kirkpatrick supporting it.
In addition to rejecting the advice of its county health director, the board’s decision ignores the cautionary tale offered by Union Academy, a 2000-student charter school in Union County which began the school year July 26 with a mask policy that essentially made them optional.
The school was immediately hit with a COVID outbreak which forced hundreds of students to miss classes due to quarantine. Masks are now required at Union Academy.
Union County’s choice also bucks a recent local trend, with Gaston County and Cabarrus County–both similarly conservative boards–reversing decisions this week and electing to require masks.
When schools open on Monday, August 23, Union County Public Schools 41,500 students and 5,000 staff members will make it the largest district in the state to allow individuals to go unmasked in buildings.