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Rowan-Salisbury Schools extends mask mandate through Oct. 25

SALISBURY — The Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education on Monday extended its mask mandate by 13 days, lining up its expiration with new state legislation.

Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill into law earlier this month that requires school boards to revisit their mask policies each month. Most districts in the state either required masks from the start of classes or did so shortly after classes began.

RSS originally put its mask policy in place a week into the school year in August. That policy ran for two weeks, and the board extended it through Oct. 12, the end of the first quarter. On Monday, RSS administration recommend the board extend the mandate to its next business meeting on Oct. 25, citing the declining quarantines and infections in the district and the new requirement to revisit the issue on a monthly basis.

The district currently has 42 student cases of COVID-19 and 658 student quarantines along with four positive employees and 16 employee quarantines. The student numbers are a far cry from what they were about a month ago, when there were more than 280 active cases for two weeks straight.

The board’s vote on Monday specifically asked whether members wanted to revise or continue with the current mask policy. In a 3-1 decision, Chair Kevin Jones voted to keep the current policy until Oct. 25 along with Jean Kennedy and Brian Hightower. Board member Travis Allen was the lone dissenting vote.

Vice Chair Alisha Byrd-Clark and member Dean Hunter were absent from the virtual meeting. There was one vacant seat on the board, but it was filled by the appointment of Lynn Marsh during the same meeting. Byrd-Clark has historically voted in favor of masks while Hunter has voted against.

The decision came ahead of the public comment period for the meeting, which happens at a set time rather than the order it is listed on the agenda. All of the comments were in regards to the mask issue.

Two doctors spoke about the issue. Dr. Jennifer Hudson, of Salisbury Pediatrics, read a statement signed by herself and a number of other clinicians who work in Rowan County.

Hudson told the board students have lost skills or never gained them as a result of the pandemic, but masks provide protection against COVID-19 when they are used by everyone and have proved effective against outbreaks.

“We absolutely recommend mandatory use of face masks as children return to school,” Hudson said, noting that most children are not eligible to be vaccinated, they can expose other people and some children who contract the viral respiratory infection go on to have long-term symptoms.

Dr. Matt Storey, a physician at Rowan Medical Center and parent of a kindergarten student, told the board it should provide as safe of an environment as it can. Storey said ignoring the pandemic will not make it go away.

Both Hudson and Story advised not lifting the mask mandate at least until the local rate of people who test positive after taking a COVID-19 test drops below 5% for two weeks. On Monday, it was 13.8%.

Several people spoke against masking. They claimed masks are ineffective at preventing the spread of COVID-19, harmful to children, harmful to the education of children, that the board has overstepped its authority by mandating masks. There was also criticism of the district’s quarantine policies and allegations that RSS is abusing children.

Earlier in the meeting, Superintendent Tony Watlington told the board it heard feedback from the board to tighten down its quarantine procedures to ensure students were not being quarantined unnecessarily. There were overtures during the public comment period to freedom, constitutionality and Christianity.

One speaker, Paula Mimnaugh, accused board members in favor of masks of taking part in a “Marxist plot.”

Another speaker, Walter Vaughn, offered to bribe board members in favor of masks to resign on the spot for $1,000 each if “we get to pick the four that replace those four.” School board members are elected by people that live in Rowan County and taking a bribe is a felony. None of the board members took Vaughn up on his offer.

Vaughn also expressed confusion about not seeing anybody dying. As of Monday, 397 people in Rowan County have died due to COVID-19 infection.

“It’s easy to ignore the scariest part of the pandemic,” Storey said. “The darkest parts of COVID-19 are not seen by most people. The sickest people are hospitalized and isolated. I can not ignore the dark side. I see it every time I work. People in our community are still dying every day from COVID-19.”

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