RSS makes masks optional, plans to revisit decision in November

Published 9:20 pm Monday, October 25, 2021

SALISBURY — Starting Wednesday, Rowan-Salisbury Schools is again letting students, parents and educators decide whether to wear face masks.

The vote Monday to move from a mandatory to an optional mask policy was 6-1, with Vice Chair Alisha Byrd-Clark as the only “no” vote. The motion was made by new board member Lynn Marsh after a presentation on the district’s current COVID-19 metrics.

“I think it’s time for our students to be given the chance,” Marsh said, adding if the numbers go back up the district may need to return to mandatory masks.

Marsh initially made a motion move to masks optional next week, but she amended it to begin Wednesday after discussion. She made the start date Wednesday instead of Tuesday to give schools time to adjust and send out messages about the change. The school board will revisit the mask policy on on Nov. 15.

Board member Brian Hightower said he wants as much data as possible ahead of Thanksgiving.

Byrd-Clark said she was concerned about upcoming holiday breaks at Thanksgiving as well as winter break. The previous year’s heights of infections fell in line with the holidays.

The mask optional vote will end more than two months of mandatory masks. The board opted to begin the school year with masks optional, but it reversed course a week after classes started amid rapidly increasing quarantines and infections, peaking at more than 3,000 student quarantines and nearly 300 infections.

The RSS staff recommendation on Monday was to continue with the mask requirement until core indicators, including the the local positivity rate and new daily case counts, drop below 5% and 20, respectively. When the school board presentation was created last week, Rowan County’s positivity rate was 7.5%. During the meeting on Monday, the positivity rate was 6.2%, which is still slightly higher than a recommendation contained in a letter from a group of local doctors — below 5%.

RSS metrics are now well below the threshold, though the community metrics are not. There were just 10 student positive cases and five employee positives considered active on Friday.

Rowan County Public Health Director Alyssa Harris attended the Monday meeting and spoke to the board about the current quarantine procedures, including a shorter quarantine period after receiving a negative PCR test.

Board member Travis Allen asked if rapid tests would be acceptable as well, and Harris said the department is sticking to PCR tests because they are the gold standard for accuracy and catch more positive cases.

With masks optional, positive cases could now produce more quarantines. This year, a pair of exceptions were added to the state toolkit for schools that allow faculty members to not quarantine after an exposure if they are vaccinated and for students to not quarantine after exposure if all parties were wearing masks at the time.