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Against guidance, Dare County Board of Education votes not to actively promote vaccines

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Eighteen days ahead of the start of school, a local board of education has voted not to promote the COVID-19 vaccine. In Dare County, 24.7% of COVID-19 cases are children ages 4-17, and there is a high level of community transmission of the virus.

Dare County’s Board of Education held a special called meeting Thursday afternoon at First Flight High School to discuss the latest guidance on school reopening. The board and superintendent reviewed current COVID-19 data in Dare County, updated guidance from the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit, guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Both the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the CDC recommend promoting vaccination as the number one strategy to lower the risk of COVID-19 exposure and spread in schools. They also both now recommend universal masking for all staff and students in K-12 schools, which the superintendent in Dare County supports. The Dare County Board of Education voted not to actively promote vaccination and to allow parental choice on masks in schools.

When asked for comment, Gov. Roy Cooper said, “Keeping students in the classroom in person is so critical for their education, and vaccines, masks, and other protections are the best way to do that. Already there are schools having to send children home because of COVID infections and quarantine protocols. Local education officials should do all they can to promote vaccines, require masks, and keep children safely in the classroom.”

Dare County is located on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

The population of Dare County is 37,009 as of July 2019. In the 2020-21 school year, the school district served 5,065 students. Dare County’s Board of Education has seven members, according to the district’s website: Mary Ellon Ballance, chair; Margaret Lawler, vice chair; Susan Bothwell; Frank Hester; Joe Tauber; David Twiddy; and Carl Woody. John Farrelly is the superintendent. 

At the start of the board meeting, Dr. Sheila Davies, director of health and human services and director of public health in Dare County, presented the latest data on COVID-19 cases in the county.

Last week, Davies said the county had 165 new positive cases of COVID-19 compared to 43 new positive cases during the same week one year ago. Since Aug. 1st, there have been 93 new positive cases compared to 21 new positive cases the same week last year.

According to Davies, there are currently 120 active positive cases of COVID-19, including 29 children ages 4-17. Of those 29, 13 are children in elementary school, four in middle school, and 12 in high school. None of those hospitalized currently are children.

Davies said delta is a significantly more contagious variant of COVID-19, with a 1:6 infection rate as compared to 1:2 or 2.5 with the initial variant. There have been 87 breakthrough cases of COVID-19 for those vaccinated in Dare County to date.

Screenshot of Dr. Davies presentation to the Dare County Board of Education

As for vaccines, Davies said 652 individuals ages 12-19 with a Dare County address have been fully vaccinated as of Aug. 1 and another 59 individuals ages 12-19 have received their first dose but are not yet due for their second. Vaccines are readily available in the community, according to the public health director.

Dare County has caught the attention of local media because of their high vaccination rate. According to CDC data released Aug. 1, Dare County has the highest vaccination rate (59%) of any rural Southern county. In an Asheville Citizen-Times article, Davies said she wants to get to 85% vaccinated. Davies attributed their success to outreach infrastructure in place due to hurricane response and pushing for a greater supply of vaccine.

When asked about the decision to require masks or not during the board meeting, Davies recommended requiring universal masking to promote public health and reduce disruption to the classroom. She emphasized that Cooper gave the responsibility to local boards to make that decision.

“We want to see children in school, and we want to see them in school as safely as possible,” Davies said.

Screenshot of the special called meeting of the Dare County Board of Education held on Aug. 5.

“The mission of the Dare County Board of Education is to support the students and staff by providing the necessary resources and support to ensure that every student is successful.”

– Dare County Board of Education website

After Davies presented, Dare County Superintendent John Farrelly reviewed the updated guidance from the CDC, AAP, and DHHS. He acknowledged that there were many ups and downs in instructional delivery during the 2020-2021 school year.

Last year, Dare County Schools started the school year with fully remote instruction, attempted in-person instruction for three weeks in October and November, and then returned to fully remote instruction until March when 80% of the staff was vaccinated. The district then provided in-person instruction through a hybrid schedule and then four days a week through the end of the school year. Overall, the students who had the most in-person instruction were only in person for about one third of the school days last year.

Farrelly listed for the board the prevention strategies from the state and the CDC in order of priority according to which are most impactful in mitigating the spread of the virus: vaccination; cloth face coverings; physical distancing and minimal exposure; testing; handling of positive, suspected, presumptive, or confirmed cases; cleaning and hygiene; transportation; water and ventilation systems; and protecting vulnerable populations.

He reviewed the CDC and AAP guidance, which both call for vaccination of all eligible and universal masking.

Screenshot of Dare County Board of Education meeting
Screenshot of Dare County Board of Education meeting

Farrelly also reviewed recommendations to promote vaccination from the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit.

“This is from the recommendations,” Farrelly said. “School administrators should encourage staff and families to be immunized. All schools should require teachers and staff to report vaccination status. All schools should require teachers and staff who are unvaccinated or do not disclose vaccination status to participate in screening and testing programs.”

He then said that Dare County Schools has not taken any of those steps.

“Dare County Schools has not promoted vaccination to this point. We’ve just made available the four or five clinics that have gone on in school buildings to date. So we have not been promoting. We’ve just made that information available. Dare County Schools has not required teachers and staff to report the vaccination status. Nor have we required teachers or staff members who are not vaccinated to do so.”

John Farrelly, superintendent of Dare County Schools

Farrelly estimates 90% of the staff in Dare County are vaccinated.

Farrelly then went through the list of strategies to promote vaccinations, making clear that Dare County Schools has not hosted information sessions nor hosted vaccination sites during the school day.

Screenshot of Dare County Board of Education meeting

At this point, about an hour and 13 minutes into the meeting, the superintendent offered the board three options on which to vote: don’t promote the vaccine, undertake a full campaign to promote the vaccine, or provide information about the vaccine on the district’s COVID-19 website.

Board member Twiddy made the motion to not actively promote vaccines. The motion was seconded by Tauber. Farrelly retained discretion with regard to staff leave for vaccination and excused absences for students for vaccination. The motion passed unanimously.

The board then took up the issue of masks.

Farrelly noted, “If we are now going to open up choice, then there will be many students in classrooms without face coverings on. And if there is a confirmed positive in that classroom — and again at the end of the day, the health director makes the determination of whose been determined as a close contact — but there should be and will be unfortunately a significant rise in the numbers of the students who are being quarantined. That’s a fact.”

A motion was made by Tauber for parents to make the decision for their children about masks effective the first day of school on Aug. 23. It was clarified this would not apply to school buses. Twiddy seconded the motion. Six members of the board voted in favor of the motion. Margaret Lawler voted against it.

You can watch the full meeting of the Dare County Board of Education here.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.