With COVID-19 steady in NC, rising elsewhere, school mask policies vary

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, November 23, 2021

SALISBURY — Most students in Rowan County were wearing masks in schools until recently, but the policies are in flux headed into colder months.

Cases in the midwest and northeast of the country are on the rise again, but in North Carolina new infections have been steady for two weeks. Rowan County currently sits at a 5.4% positivity rate for COVID-19 tests.

The biggest change came on Oct. 25, when Rowan-Salisbury Schools made the switch from a mandate to mask optional. That 6-1 decision by the district Board of Education affected 18,000 students and about 3,000 staff. The district started the school year mask optional, but reversed course a week in after quarantines and infections began increasing at a rate that could shut down schools.

New infections and the percent of people testing positive after getting a COVID-19 test dropped dramatically over the course of the previous month. Since RSS lifted its mask requirement, its infection and quarantine numbers have changed little. There were 12 student cases and five staff cases as of Friday with 443 students in quarantine and 14 staff in quarantine.

Some neighboring districts have also opted to lift mask requirements. Cabarrus County Schools also lifted its requirement in October. However, many local schools have kept mask requirements.

Sacred Hearth Catholic school also dropped its own requirement after Halloween. The school started the year with a mask optional policy but added a mask requirement to align with the policy of the Charlotte Diocese. Sacred Heart Marketing and Communication Director Robin Fisher said the school felt the need to keep the mask policy in place earlier this year due to the widespread cases driven by the delta variant of COVID-19.

“We were surviving fine as a small school, but we felt a duty and a responsibility to our community,” Fisher said.

Fisher said the school has had no issues since it dropped the mask requirement.

Kannapolis City Schools, which serves about 5,500 students, has stuck with its indoor mask requirement. At its meeting this month, the board unanimously reaffirmed keeping the policy in place on the recommendation of administration and local health officials.

At the end of last week, KCS had five student positives, eight in quarantine and three staff positives. KCS Communication Coordinator Ashley Forrest said the staff recommendation at each meeting recently has been to continue the mask requirement.

When the RSS board discontinued its requirement in October, staff members recommended the opposite, but the recommendation during the Nov. 15 meeting was to not change the policy from masks optional.

Faith Academy Charter School has also kept its indoor requirement for now. Charter school board chair George Wilhelm said the board voted on lifting the requirement at its most recent meeting. One board member was absent, and the vote was a tie, which makes the motion automatically fail. The school will consider the issue again in December.

Wilhelm said the school makes a point of giving kids 15-minute mask breaks twice a day as well.

“I think we’re the only school that does temperature checks, and we’re still doing temperature checks,” Wilhelm said.

He said the school had to close a couple classrooms during the past month due to exposures.

“We’re trying to get through it,” Wilhelm said.

Salisbury Academy has, for the most part, kept its requirement as well.

Academy Director of Marketing and Communications Lizzy Roy said the school recently switch to mask optional for seventh and eighth grade students only when they are at their desks. They still have to wear masks in hallways or anywhere there is mixing with other classes.

“We are responding to what the local health department and our medical task force are advising us,” Roy said. “It’s one of those things where we are adapting as we are able.”