School Board Relaxes Mask Mandate, Adopts Incremental Approach

SCHOOLS

By Heather Smith Craig

In a presentation about COVID protocols at the March 3 Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Dr Nyah Hamlett reported that 65% of CHCCS staff and faculty survey respondents indicated a desire to continue requiring the use of masks in school. Dr. Hamlett’s presentation comes on the heels of neighboring school districts — Durham, Wake and Orange County — dropping their school mask mandates. The CHCCS BOE discusses the mask mandate monthly, and the anticipation of this month’s discussion elicited many spoken and written public comments. 

After members of the public offered a wide range of views on the matter, the administration presented their plan to adopt a gradual approach to relaxing mask requirements. The plan would entail making masks optional but “recommended” outdoors starting March 7, and still required indoors for at least another month. As of March 2, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention classifies Orange County as having a ‘Medium’ community risk level, a metric based on number new infections, the percentage of hospital beds being used and number of hospitalizations in the area. 

Orange County Health Department Director Quintana Stewart stressed to the board that, “We are in a different place than we were four months ago,” and have more tools in our toolkit, including more community immunity due to vaccinations and acquired immunity through infection.

The discussion covered a range of topics including the timing of relaxing an indoor mask mandate, vaccination rates of students and in the community as a whole — particularly in communities of color — teachers’ and teacher assistants’ feelings of safety in schools and their mental health and providing high-quality masks to those who want to continue to wear a mask in a building with mixed mask usage. Board members all wanted to be able to provide clear guidance to the community.

The staff reported that no vaccination status information has been collected from the student body except for student athletes, who have a high vaccination rate.

Board Chair Deon Temne asked the board to vote on whether to lift the mask mandate for outdoor spaces. The board approved the motion 7-0.

Overall, the school board’s discussion reflected the complex situation in which the community finds itself. Will members of the community who need to be protected still be protected if a mask mandate is lifted? Will those who are vaccine-hesitant get their first shot by the time the mandate is lifted? How will students and staff cope if the mask mandate is lifted, and how will the schools navigate the shift without eliciting fear and anxiety, bullying and blame? While Ms. Stewart said that “We were maybe handicapped by fear,” it is also clear that removing the last physical barrier of the pandemic will not usher in normalcy. Addressing this issue, board member Ashton Powell said, “The mental health challenges your kids are facing will not disappear once the masks do. Please, talk to your school counselors. The masks are not ‘the problem,’ it’s the whole dang thing. Advocate for your kids.” 

The board voted 6-1 to keep masks in place indoors until April 4, at which point they will be recommended — but not required — in indoor spaces. 

The budget and student success updates were moved to a to-be-determined special meeting. The next board meeting with take place March 17.

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