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RSS school board makes masks optional for 2021-2022 school year

By Carl Blankenship

carl.blankenship@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — The Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education on Monday voted to make masks optional for students, staff and visitors.

The board discussed the issue at length before taking a vote on member Travis Allen’s motion to make face coverings optional. It passed 5-2. Chair Kevin Jones and members Allen, Susan Cox, Dean Hunter and Brian Hightower voted in favor. Vice Chair Alisha Byrd-Clark and member Jean Kennedy voted against the motion.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services toolkit for public schools currently requires masks, but board attorney Ken Soo noted a major rewrite of the document is expected next week. An executive order from Gov. Roy Cooper is set to expire at the end of the month as well. Whether the state will require masks by the time the district begins classes on Aug. 11 is up in the air.

Included in the school board’s motion was optional COVID-19 vaccinations and not requiring anyone coming to a school to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19. However, there is currently no state requirement for anyone attending public school to be vaccinated or show proof of immunity.

Soo told the board it has authority to make decisions related to the district, but decisions regarding communicable disease are under the purview of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and local health directors.

Rowan Health Director Alyssa Harris told the board she is required to follow up on any reportable disease, which includes COVID-19. She noted health directors have some power to abate public health nuisances, which could include outbreaks of any disease, whether it’s a foodborne illness at a restaurant or an outbreak of COVID-19.

Harris noted an increasing number of local COVID-19 cases are in younger people, who are generally less vaccinated.

Byrd-Clark asked if there are any liabilities related to violating state guidelines. 

Limited criminal misdemeanor liability exists for communicable disease, but Soo said the prospect of liability related to COVID-19 infections are slim because it is difficult to show where someone contracted COVID-19.

Allen, an investigator for the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office who’s running for sheriff, said he hasn’t pushed back on any mandate from a governor in his eight years on the board, and he is putting himself in a difficult position because a conviction or charge could cost him his job.

He said the Rowan-Salisbury school board would “stand for something” by taking the vote.

“I’m willing to take that opportunity to make an example to the rest of the school boards in the state,” he said.

Hunter said he hopes state government understands parents have choices of where to send their students.

“This kind of issue matters,” Hunter said.

If vaccines were not available, the conversation would be different, he said.

“It’s very available to whoever wants it,” Hunter said.

Jones voted in favor of the motion, but he noted increased quarantines and infections negatively impact students more than requiring masks. Jones also pointed out the district’s Aug. 11 start date is earlier than most others in North Carolina. 

Other points brought up during the discussion included that vaccines are not available to anyone under the age of 12, there is no mask requirement for children younger than 5 and the state’s toolkit only includes recommendations.

Before voting, Allen said Monday’s vote was a directive from the school board and an attempt to take liability off school leadership.

The crowd, numbering about 50, cheered Allen’s motion and comments from board members in favor of making masks optional. Several people attended to speak during public comment in favor of the move. However, by the time the public comment period began, the board had already made the decision. The speakers were grateful.

The RSS board is joining a small number of districts who have either passed similar motions or are considering them. CDC guidelines still recommend face masks for people who have not been vaccinated.

Superintendent Tony Watlington said district leadership will discuss next steps Tuesday morning.

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