School board to comply with federal bus masking order, talks COVID-19 quarantines for staff

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 10, 2021

SALISBURY — Despite making masks optional in its buildings, the Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education on Monday didn’t resist an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requiring masks on public transportation, including school buses.

The change is a small departure from a previous decision to make masks optional on school campuses. When the board made that decision on July 12, it was in violation of current state requirements from the N.C.  Department of Health and Human Services. However, the state modified its requirements for school districts a week later and gave them the option to not require masks. The guidance was later updated to include the CDC order as a requirement.

After the Monday’s meeting, officials said the district will follow the order. Classes begin Wednesday.

RSS Chief Student Services and Compliance Officer April Kuhn recommended the board comply with the federal order, noting its distinction from a state recommendation or requirement.

The masks issue was part of an extended discussion on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kuhn said there were 20 staff in quarantine as of Monday and 11 confirmed COVID-19 positives.

She said the district is implementing physical distancing where possible in schools as well as increased hand washing. During the meeting, the board approved extending its contract for additional sanitation services. It has millions of dollars in federal aid to dedicate to improving air quality in buildings.

The district will also have the option of opting into state-funded COVID-19 tests students and staff. Kuhn said the tests would be offered voluntarily and help determine quickly if someone has COVID-19 and needs to quarantine or is in the clear and can return to class rather than waiting days to do so.

Board member Travis Allen brought up the issue of staff quarantines and vaccination status. The current quarantine policy set out by the health department includes exceptions to quarantine. One exception to quarantining after exposure is if the person in question has been vaccinated. RSS staff can show a district nurse or the health department proof of vaccination, have no symptoms and be exempt.

Getting vaccinated or showing proof of vaccination, however, is not required. The quarantine period is 10 days and staff are paid during that period.

Allen questioned if that policy was counter to the district’s July 12 decision, which also included not requiring anyone to show proof of vaccination. Allen asked if it is a law or a recommendation to ask for proof of vaccination.

Board Attorney Ken Soo said the Rowan County Health Department has authority to order quarantine and it is unlawful to attempt to subvert an ordered quarantine.

Allen questioned the quarantine keeping staff out of work, and referenced “natural immunity” for people who contracted COVID-19 previously. Later on in the discussion, Health Department Director Alyssa Harris said the reinfection rate for the unvaccinated is double those who have received the shot.

Allen said he does not understand how someone can be forced to “show your papers.” However, the showing proof of vaccination to avoid a quarantine order is optional, and many district employees — about half — have already voluntarily shared their vaccination status to streamline the handling of exposures.

Superintendent Tony Watlington said the administration has no interest in playing the role of “big brother.”

Watlington said the district is trying to follow the quarantine rules of the health department and comply with the spirit of the July 12 decision.

“We don’t go around and just willy nilly ask folks ‘Have you been vaccinated?’ any more than we would go ask folks ‘Have you taken your diabetes medicine this morning,'” Watlington said.