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Editorial: Few penalties if RSS holds firm to vote

The Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education on Monday didn’t make a decision about student and staff health when it chose to make masks optional for the coming school year.

The RSS board’s vote could be a nice moment of publicity for members who believe it’s OK to rely on personal responsibility amid the pandemic, require backtracking later or force a decision about whether to follow through on desires to “stand for something” if mask mandates are not repealed in schools.

A decision with student health at the forefront would be a more cautious one — requiring masks rather than voting to make them optional. Instead, students, their parents and staff can determine action based on whether they think COVID-19 is a threat to others.

Of course, COVID-19 is a threat and it remains so. It’s killed more than 600,000 Americans, 13,512 North Carolinians and 313 Rowan Countians. It has left many others with long-lasting health problems, too. Sure, schools have not been major spreaders of COVID-19 in the previous year; they’ve also taken prevention seriously.

Schools have an added defense in the form of vaccinations, but those are not foolproof if uptake rates in schools mirror the general public.

Just 49,669 Rowan residents, or about 35%, have received at least one dose of a vaccination.

Because all things COVID-19 are politicized, the vote mostly is an opportunity for board members to prove their politics to the public with seemingly little personal consequences if they attempt to push through roadblocks later on.

In just a sentence, Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education member Travis Allen, who proposed Monday’s vote, summed that up perfectly.

“If you’re going to fight for something and you’re going to stand for something, you’re bound to lose something, but I’m willing to take that opportunity to make an example to the rest of the school boards in the state that Rowan-Salisbury Schools are going to let our parents make that decision themselves,” Allen said.

It’s important to note state and local health officials, not the school board, have authority to mitigate communicable diseases such as COVID-19. So, in actual terms, the vote will not produce changes in the rules that govern school operations.   

During a visit to Northwest Cabarrus High School Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper hinted at the possibility state officials would OK optional wearing of masks, but RSS’ vote violates state guidance for the moment.

If COVID-19 trends continue as is, Cooper might ask health officials to keep rules the same.

After a long period of decline, cases appear to be trending upward. Data updated Wednesday showed the largest number of new cases in North Carolina (995) in about two months.

Whatever the state decides, behavior does not always comply with rules. Because of the RSS board’s vote, large numbers of students and staff may show up to school without masks or, for those eligible, vaccinations in August whether or not the state changes course.

If the RSS Board of Education wants to hold firm, there could be criminal misdemeanors for violating communicable disease rules, attorney Ken Soo said. Chances of that, however, are low because those filing the charges will need to tie an infection, hospitalization or death directly to a school and negligence by an employee or school board member.

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