The Mooresville Graded School District Board of Education unanimously supported a proposal Sunday leaving face masks optional for the upcoming 2021-22 school year set to begin Aug. 2.
The 5-0 vote came during a special emergency meeting held July 25 at the Mooresville High School Performing Arts Center. The return-to-school proposal, one of two presented to the board, comes with the caveat that if COVID-19 cases increase and meet certain thresholds as determined by state health officials, masking will be required until case numbers show a decline, said Superintendent Stephen Mauney.
The MGSD Board of Education met after Gov. Roy Cooper announced July 21 he would not extend the statewide mask mandate set to expire at the end of this month and had revised his latest COVID-19 directives, the NCDHHS StrongSchools Toolkit. In the Toolkit, Cooper said school districts should require students in grades K-8 and staff, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks indoor school buildings effective July 30. Cooper also said school districts should require unvaccinated high school students and school staff to wear masks indoors.
But several board members felt Cooper had not made masking a requirement in his updated directives and opted to allow parents to decide whether to mask their children. This decision was met with applause and cheers from the large crowd gathered at the meeting which lasted about two hours Sunday. Nearly all of the approximately 30 people who spoke during the meeting’s public comment period overwhelmingly supported the rights of parents — and not the school district — to choose whether to have their children wear masks to school and to return children to in-person learning.
“The parents should have the choice whether to send the kids to school with face masks or not to send them with face masks,” said parent Jay Goodman. “We shouldn’t be told what to do.”
“Their right to mask their children should not supersede mine,” said parent Brian D’Amico. “Just like mine should not supersede theirs.”
Mom Carissa Abraham, who said her daughter would return to school vaccinated and masked, was heckled by a spectator in the back of the auditorium who soon left. It did not deter Abraham, who said she believed everyone could work together for the betterment of the community. “Whatever is decided, I believe we may not always agree, but my hope is that we’re going to focus on the issues at hand, not target any one individual,” she said. “I truly believe we are all doing the best we can with the information that we have.”
The Rev. Curtis Johnson, president of the Mooresville South Iredell NAACP chapter, also spoke in support of students wearing masks and blamed unvaccinated adults for putting unvaccinated children at risk. “We must do all we can as adults, all we can to make sure our communities, our schools and our kids are safe to go back to school this coming school year,” Johnson said.
The other return-to-school proposal presented to the board Sunday required all students in grades K-8 and staff, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks indoors and students in grades 9-12 and staff who are not vaccinated to wear masks indoors.
Both proposals require masks be worn on school buses due to a federal transportation order, Mauney said. Under the proposal approved Sunday, medical exemptions to wearing a mask will be permitted with a doctor’s note and if approved by the district, Mauney said. Bona fide religious exemptions must also be approved by the district and will be assessed based upon the status of potential impact on public health, Mauney continued. The proposal also allows Mauney the authority to determine how and when changes based on thresholds will be made during the school year.
The proposal making masks optional with the possibility of requiring masks if COVID-19 numbers increase was approved in a unanimous 5-0 vote. Prior to the vote, board members discussed their reasoning for supporting the proposal. Next to the COVID-19 vaccine, masks are the next best mitigating factor in preventing the spread of the disease, said board member Debbie Marsh. On the other hand, teaching and learning were adversely affected last school year by the required use of masks, she said. “I think we need to try to start school with choice,” Marsh said, adding the board would respond with a mask requirement if numbers started to increase.
Board member Greg Whitfield said the governor’s Toolkit “has absolutely no teeth” and said he would support making face masks optional to start the school year.
Board member Leon Pridgen was the only person who expressed any hesitation in not making masking a requirement to start this school year. He said he supported following the governor’s guidelines because Pridgen himself has lost many family members to COVID-19. “Personally, I think that masks should be worn, and I know a lot of people don’t like that,” Pridgen said. “I see people’s heads shaking right now. And, that’s fine, that’s my opinion. My duty as a board member is to support the parents, to support your choice but supporting that choice is knowing that if our situation is adversely affected, is greatly affected, if we are not able to have children in school without masks, there may come a time where we have to reinstitute the use of masks in a classroom.”
Pridgen then said he would support the optional mask proposal “grudgingly” and “with reservations.”
Board members Kerry Pennell and Roger Hyatt also supported the optional mask policy with the potential to require masks if COVID-19 cases increase and meet certain thresholds. These thresholds, measured on a countywide, five-tier “COVID-19 County Alert System” set forth by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, assess three metrics in the county: the case rate, the percent of tests that are positive and the hospital impact within the county, Mauney said.
Currently, Iredell County is measured at a yellow tier meaning there is significant community spread, Mauney said. If Iredell County moves up to the next tier, “substantial” community spread, or the tier above that, “critical” community spread, the MGSD will require masks until numbers subside and revert back to the significant impact tier, Mauney said.
The optional mask proposal also comes with certain requirements if there is found to be known transmission of COVID-19 within a classroom, he said. If there are known transmissions within a classroom, that classroom will be required to wear masks for two weeks unless the number of quarantines cause a full-class quarantine, Mauney said. If there is a cluster at any school, masks will be required for two weeks, unless the school needs to be shut down, he said.