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Editorial: Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education should extend mask mandate

Imagine if Rowan-Salisbury Schools hadn’t made masks mandatory two weeks ago.

With nearly 300 student infections, thousands of quarantines, football game cancellations and administrators heading back into the classroom because of problems finding substitute teachers, it might be time to take action.

It’s also the district’s current reality.

Instead of facing a decision to mandate masks, the RSS Board of Education in a 4 p.m. Monday meeting will extend one currently in place or let it expire on Tuesday.

The right decision, of course, is to require masks in schools. Enforce it just like rules about appropriate dress. Two weeks is not enough time to beat back COVID-19.

Schools are microcosms of the community, and that means the virus will find its way into RSS buildings whether or not masks are required. School board members, however, can ensure RSS isn’t contributing to a spike in cases by continuing to require masks. That the number of COVID-19 clusters in schools is growing indicates schools may be doing the opposite.

Post reporting shows there are currently seven clusters — China Grove Elementary, China Grove Middle, West Rowan High, Landis Elementary, South Rowan High, Corriher Lipe Middle and Southeast Middle

The “freedom” argument and claims about the importance of parent choice continue to ignore a fundamental fact — the ongoing spread of COVID-19 threatens the general welfare of Salisbury and Rowan County. In a real scenario, a student could come home and give COVID-19 to one or both of his or her parents. Before symptoms appear, the parents may spread the virus to coworkers, which could result in an entire shift having to take days off or a skeleton crew holding things together until the sick are cleared to return. Even if every worker infected turns out OK, there’s an operational impact to the business or additional stress on the workers who remain.

The freedom to shun masks is like the freedom to run red lights or shoot guns in towns and cities on New Year’s Eve. It might turn out OK. You also might hospitalize or kill someone. That’s why police officers are likely to write tickets if they witness either incident.

COVID-19 remains especially threatening to the community’s well-being because about 50% of those eligible in Rowan County are not fully vaccinated, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Being fully vaccinated means a lower likelihood of severe symptoms, particularly if you’re in good health. So, a fully vaccinated shift is more likely to only need a few days at home.

It’s worth recognizing that being young and in generally good health also makes an unvaccinated person less likely to die of COVID-19, but statistics repeatedly show Rowan Countians are less healthy than the average North Carolinian. One such statistic: 37% of Rowan County residents are obese compared to about 32% of North Carolinians.

RSS students and employees may have a higher vaccination rate than the community, but the school district doesn’t appear to have enough information to make a determination one way or the other. Employees are not required to provide their vaccination status.

When 80% of students and employees are vaccinated, for example, it may be safe to press on without mandatory masks because administrators know COVID-19 will not be a deadly threat to an overwhelming majority of the folks in RSS’ buildings on a daily basis. When there aren’t hundreds of new cases per day in Rowan County, as there are now, the calculation changes, too.

The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education also must consider the rules in place to control COVID-19 whether they like them or not. When students properly wear masks, quarantine rules are less stringent. That means more students learning in the classroom instead of their bedroom.

Even if a maintenance worker is the only one who can supervise a class because a substitute teacher isn’t available, the best way for students to learn is in the classroom. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says as much in its guidance for K-12 schools: “Schools are an important part of the infrastructure of communities. They provide safe and supportive learning environments for students that support social and emotional development, provide access to critical services, and improve life outcomes. They also employ people, and enable parents, guardians, and caregivers to work.”

Even if they don’t consider COVID-19 to be threatening for the community’s well-being, those opposed to masks in schools, including RSS board members Travis Allen and Dean Hunter, must accept that mask wearing is the best way to keep students in classrooms.

Otherwise, their votes against extending a mask mandate could become a vote for virtual learning.

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