Board of Ed keeps masking in place as cases surge in school system | Local News | #Education

WATAUGA — The Watauga County Board of Education voted to keep its mask mandate for students, teachers and staff as cases are surging in the school system. 

The first week back from break saw 92 positive COVID-19 cases among students and 17 among Watauga County Schools staff. For the week of Jan. 10, the school system has seen 97 cases among students and 25 cases among staff as of Jan. 13. 

“Having to temporarily close a school due to inadequate staffing is a huge concern,” WCS Superintendent Scott Elliott said. “This week, we have seen increased cases in our support staff members such as teacher assistants, bus drivers and custodians. Everyone is pitching in to cover classes and drive busses and anything it takes to keep schools open, but we are stretched very thin right now. The weather forecast might be a blessing in disguise to help our staff and students recover and get past their isolation periods.”

Elliott said the school system suspects that up to nine of the student cases were within school transmission, which is relatively low compared to the number of positives. 

“By following the state quarantine rules, we would have many more students and staff members out if we were not requiring masks at this time,” Elliott said. 

The mandatory state quarantine requires close contacts — a person within six feet of another for 15 minutes — to quarantine unless they are fully vaccinated, have had COVID-19 within the last 90 days or the COVID-19 positive person and the close contact person are both correctly wearing masks. 

The board of education unanimously voted to keep the mandate at its Jan. 10 meeting. Chair Gary Childers said after the board voted that he looked forward to a day when the board could feel comfortable voting to end the mask mandate.  

Elliott told the board that he understands people have different feelings about the mask mandate and schooling during COVID-19. He also knows it’s difficult for the board and parents as state quarantine and isolation mandates have to be followed while the board has to make decisions regarding masks. 

He said just that day before the meeting, he got completely different calls. 

“People continue to have very divergent views on how to handle these decisions,” Elliott said. “Just today, I received two phone calls back-to-back from different parents. One was angry and wanted to know when the board of education would come to their senses and stop requiring masks. The second parent was upset and wanted to know why we were still having school in person and why we were not going back to remote instruction given the current surge in cases. I appreciate that the board’s decision-making has prioritized doing everything possible to keep students in school.”

Before the board voted, they heard from two public commenters. The first one, Christy McAlister, said she was speaking off the premise that everyone cares about the health, safety and staying in school for students and staff. During her public comment, she asked the board, “are we harming children and students with masking and vaccinations to protect adults?”

“We can only reasonably claim that vaccinating children is to protect adults,” McAlister said. 

Michael Ackerman also spoke during the public comment section. He said he has been coming to the meetings for months to provide the board with data and different perspectives on COVID-19. He said he would use his public comment time to express his disappointment in the board. 

The Watauga County Board of Education will next meet on Feb. 14. 

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