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RSS school board extends mask mandate after lengthy conversation on spiking student quarantines

SALISBURY — The Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education in a split vote on Monday extended its mask mandate for all school facilities until the end of the first quarter, which is Oct. 11.

The mandate requires everyone in RSS buildings to wear a mask, with the exception of athletes playing on courts.

The 4-2 vote count was the same as a previous one to institute a two-week mandate that would have expired today. Chair Kevin Jones and Vice Chair Alisha Byrd-Clark voted for the extension along with Jean Kennedy and Brian Hightower. Dean Hunter and Travis Allen voted against the motion. Following Susan Cox’s resignation, the school board has six members until a replacement is named.

Quarantines, which were the most significant topic of conversation on Monday, and infections have climbed rapidly since the district began classes on Aug. 11. As of Friday, there were 3,192 quarantines and 282 infections in students. There were 149 employees quarantined and 52 infections. RSS’ substitute provider on Monday was only able to fill 43% of the 282 teacher vacancies.

The district anticipates numbers leveling out. Chief Student Services Officer April Kuhn told the board more than 950 students returned from quarantines on Monday, but RSS administrators recommended extending the mandate based on the current numbers and quarantine rules. Students who test positive are subject to quarantine. Students who are exposed to unmasked students who tested positive quarantine for 10 days. Those showing a long list of flu-like symptoms quarantine until they are cleared of COVID-19.

Kuhn said a student showing symptoms on the list may be allowed to return after testing negative. The district works on a case-by-case basis.

Jones said the district needs to do everything it can to be clear and concise on quarantine policy.

“I think we’ve made some mistakes on that,” Jones said. “I don’t think any of our administrators are prepared to know how to handle a pandemic like we’re in, and so I think they’re doing all they can.”

Allen described his own son being sent home after having stomach aches and being unable to find a clinic to test him for COVID-19 so he could be cleared from quarantine.

Hunter said messages from people about mask enforcement have been bothering him and that the district needs to caution itself before everybody turns into “mask police.” He encouraged RSS to focus on the goal of teaching kids. He gave an anecdote of one parent who kept their student home sick and, after informing the school, was allegedly told to quarantine for 10 days. Hunter also pointed out the district’s flyer advising parents to keep students home if they experience a long list of flu-like symptoms does not mention being quarantined for 10 days.

Superintendent Tony Watlington said the district is following quarantine guidelines based on recommendations from the local health department and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, but he also admitted the district could do better.

“I do think it’s also a legitimate question about are we being overzealous in the enforcement of the current mask mandate or going overboard versus using some common sense,” Watlington said, adding no employee in the district should be looking at video footage to see if someone was wearing a mask.

While opposing mandatory masks, Allen used traffic fatality statistics to say children are more likely to die in a car wreck than from COVID-19. He also said family members and friends have died after contracting COVID-19. He said four members of his church passed away due to the disease as well.

Allen said he puts on a mask when asked to wear one out of respect, but he is “just against it being forced.”

Hunter criticized COVID-19 information on the district’s own website regarding masks, specifically the statement that wearing a mask for six to eight hours does not cause harm. The district’s website cites information from the American Association of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing masks cut down on infections. According to Novant Health, wearing a mask all day will not harm your health even if you have a cold.

While he voted for the mask mandate, Hightower listed several concerns. He said his vote for masks was to keep kids in school and that he does not believe quarantine rules are consistent from school to school. He criticized how hastily students can be quarantined and described teachers having to cover classes when there are no substitutes to fill while having their planning and grading time cannibalized as a result.

“Every day can not be an overtime day,” Hightower said. “You don’t have a guy working 16 hours a day every single day, and that’s what our teachers are doing right now.”

If the district does not get quarantines down, Hightower said RSS will have to make schedule changes, including potentially going back to “A” days and “B” days.

“We’re here to get an education,” Hightower said.

Watlington said the state does not offer an option to return to the part-time schedule RSS followed most of last school year.

Kennedy criticized the discussion, saying the board veered away from the purpose stated on the agenda for the called meeting. She also included her experience as an educator sometimes covering classes and that teachers knew going in to the profession they would not be paid well.

“I don’t think any of us, anybody up here or anybody else that comes here is looking for any money, rather we are looking for what’s the best course to take for our children,” Kennedy said.

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