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How will masks and quarantines shape this school year?

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At the July 26 local board of education meeting in Watauga County, things were looking up. Local coronavirus cases were low. More than 90% of district staff were vaccinated, and the 12-17-year-old vaccination rate was pretty high too, said Superintendent Scott Elliot. This school year would be different than last, including when it came to masks. The board decided to make masks optional.

“They then had their August meeting just two weeks later, but so much had changed,” Elliot said. Case numbers had jumped; compared to 22 cases the week before, 44 new cases popped up that week and 53 followed in the first week of August. Plus, there was an outbreak at a Parks and Recreation camp hosted at a district high school, Elliot said.

“That really got everyone’s attention both on the board and in the community, and it’s the largest pediatric outbreak that we have seen,” he said.

The board reversed its policy. All students and staff will be required to wear masks regardless of vaccination status this school year.

“I’ve noticed that since we’ve made our decision, that other districts are experiencing the same thing,” Elliot said. “What we are doing right now is a continuation of our experience from last year, continually changing and adjusting to what’s happening here on the ground. It’s not where we want to be, but it’s where we feel like we need to be right now.”

Across the state, districts are making local decisions on masking policies and other measures to prevent the spread of the delta variant. These decisions will impact the health of students and staff, as well as schools’ ability to offer as much in-person learning as possible after a year of disruptions.

Though the physical well-being of the community was the driving force behind the Watauga board’s decision, Elliot said the policy will also mean fewer quarantines and academic interruptions.

“I’ve said to parents, ‘As a parent myself, I don’t like any of this, but I would rather my children wear a mask at school than for them to be repeatedly at home for 14 days in quarantine because of being a close contact.'”

Fewer masks, more quarantines

Elliot said a change in quarantine guidance from last year is “a strong, compelling reason to require masks of everyone.”

The latest guidance from the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) for schools — which reflects the CDC guidance — contains a mask exception for quarantines: If both the infected individual and the exposed individual were wearing masks during their close contact correctly and consistently, the exposed person does not have to quarantine if he or she does not have symptoms. Fully vaccinated people without symptoms also do not have to quarantine.

After opening with mask-optional policies, multiple other schools and districts have reversed course after students and staff have tested positive and many more individuals have had to quarantine.

After four days of mask-optional schooling in Mooresville Graded School District, more than 80 students were required to quarantine. If masks were required, only 10 students would have had to quarantine, the district’s superintendent said at the time.

At Union Academy, a K-12 charter school in Monroe, the school started requiring masks after a week of school led to 14 positive cases and more than 150 individuals required to quarantine. The cases have since been classified as a cluster. The school on Monday was reporting 102 positive cases since July 26.

The school boards of Watauga County Schools, Johnston County Schools, Madison County Schools, Henderson County Schools, Kannapolis City Schools, and Swain County Schools have all recently reversed their mask-optional policies. As of Aug. 16, more than 50 districts were still starting the school year under mask-optional policies.

In Edenton-Chowan Schools, which has a mask-optional policy, most contact tracing and quarantine decisions were made by school nurses, said Superintendent Michael Sasscer.

“That was probably one of our most exhausting efforts that we put forth in the 2021 school year,” Sasscer said. “We became really good at it and we are efficient, and we have our scripts, and we kind of have that down to a science. So we are prepared.”

Masks — and responsible decision-making — more important than ever

Universal masking policies are especially important with a more contagious delta variant, said Dr. Danny Benjamin, a distinguished professor of pediatrics at Duke University and co-chair of the ABC Science Collaborative. The collaborative studied more than one million students and staff in North Carolina from March to June 2021 and found low school transmission rates, which they attributed to universal masking.

They’ve reached similar conclusions with the delta variant in a summer school study in which 19 school districts participated, Benjamin said. The delta variant is much more contagious than the original virus, he said.

Though children can transmit the virus, it is not yet clear if the variant causes more severe illness in children, Benjamin said. The number of pediatric cases has reached a record high across the country and has been increasing in North Carolina.

“The two places you really want to mask, if you don’t mask anywhere else, you want to mask in the hospital, and you want to mask in the school setting,” Benjamin said, “because you have compulsory activities where large groups of people are gathered together indoors for prolonged periods of time.”

Benjamin said unmasking during lunch might even present problems for unvaccinated students. Outdoor seating should be prioritized, as well as distancing and limiting the amount of time without a mask to 15 minutes.

“We’ve got about six more months (or) four more months of this before the vaccine becomes available for children under 12,” he said. “For those four months, we can eat a little more quickly.”

Other school leaders should take note of schools and districts changing their policies as they monitor their community needs, Benjamin said.

“They had integrity around quarantining,” he said. “They had integrity around telling their families, ‘Hey, we’ve had some infections.’ They had integrity tracking their data and reporting their data, and they had integrity to say, ‘Hey, look, this is not working.’ And they switched course. Those concepts are really important.”

No statewide mask mandate

Though there is no statewide mask mandate, Gov. Roy Cooper has encouraged masks in schools. On Friday, school boards that “have failed to adopt” the state’s toolkit on safety measures received a letter urging them to fully adhere to the guidance from Cooper, DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen, and State Health Director Dr. Betsey Tilson, according to a press release.

“The science is clear that children learn better when they attend school in person and the science is also clear that masks reduce COVID infections so we can keep them there,” Cooper said. “The Delta variant is moving fast and I strongly urge school leaders who have made masks optional to reconsider and make them mandatory.”

The lack of a mandate has created tense situations at local boards of education and hard decisions for school leaders. Sasscer said navigating an entire range of perspectives has been a challenge.

“Some communities need to come to the place where it’s more a discussion about instructional quality, instructional time, and consistency… than it is about taking away an American freedom or an American choice,” Sasscer said. “How leaders navigate that awareness is also part of this recipe and this equation. At the end of the day, we all want to be successful. I want to be successful in my community, and I need to be heard and I need to be trusted and respected. And that takes all of us rowing in the same direction and being able to have a conversation.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.