The Gaston County School Board voted unanimously Tuesday evening to make face coverings optional for students and employees.
In making that decision, the board apparently pleased most parents, many of whom attended the meeting to speak against making masks a requirement.
The decision came after Gaston County Public Health Director Steve Eaton presented information to the School Board Tuesday urging them to require unvaccinated students and employees to wear masks.
The new policy, effective next week, will mean that wearing masks is purely optional, whether or not a student, teacher or other school personnel has been vaccinated.
The decision flies in the face of the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit – published and updated by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services last week – which recommended that schools with students in kindergarten through eighth grade should require all children and staff to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. Schools with students in 9th through 12th grades should ensure that anyone who isn’t fully vaccinated, including students, wear a mask indoors, according to that policy announced as a recommendation by Governor Roy Cooper and NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen.
At its June 29th meeting, the Lincoln County School Board also adopted a policy that masks are purely optional. Lincoln County Schools also announced that no remote classes will be held during the coming school year.
Catawba County Schools and Cleveland County Schools also voted Monday to make masks optional during the coming school year.
The CDC reversed its previous recommendation on Tuesday (July 17th) saying that people vaccinated against the coronavirus should resume wearing masks in schools and public indoor spaces.
“This is not a decision we made lightly,"said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky.
The CDC's revised recommendation involves any place where people gather, especially schools.
The CDC recommends that all schools--in all grades--resume a mask requirement and take other measures to once again help stop the spread of the virus, including the delta variety that is more transmissible than the original.
"The unvaccinated are driving the new infections," Walensky said, "but we believe everybody should be wearing a mask in those areas with substantial numbers of new cases." All of the North Carolina counties in this area fit that description.
Walensky said another reason for a mask requirement is that it's difficult to know who has and who has not been vaccinated. "We know that 12 to 17-year-olds, right now, have only about 30 percent fully vaccinated. That's why the CDC is recommending that all K through 12 schools should require that everyone be masked. be opened for full-time in-person learning. But in those indoor settings, everyone should be masked.
"Schools should still plan on returning to in-person learning, but with masks."
The evidence is clear--vaccinations against the virus have slowed while the virus, especially the delta variety, is once again spreading rapidly in what might be called a 'fourth wave.' Both the Gaston & Lincoln County health departments put out news releases last Friday informing the public that the number of new cases and hospitalizations is now increasing after falling steadily over the last few months.
Lincoln County reported 189 new cases over the last two weeks as of Friday (July 23rd). Catawba County reported 69 new cases over the previous week as of last Wednesday (July 21st), 71 the week that ended July 14th. New weekly figures will be released Wednesday afternoon (July 28th).
Cleveland County reported its first COVID-19 death in seven weeks on Monday. The victim was said to be under age 50. The death brought the county's total since the beginning of the pandemic to 229. Lincoln County has had 86 deaths from the virus; Catawba County, 314; and Gaston County 445.
The Cleveland County Health Dept. reported that in the past seven days, the county has had 123 new cases; 30 new cases were confirmed on Tuesday.
For the first time in over two months, the statewide percentage of positive tests for COVID-19 was over 10% on Tuesday. The NCDHHS also reported that hospitalizations from the disease have again risen to over a thousand. The Intensive Care Units at some hospitals are now once again packed with COVID patients.
Joining the call for masks in schools is the American Academy of Pediatrics, which advised July 19th that vaccinated kids over the age of 2 should still wear masks in schools, citing the risk of new COVID variants and how difficult it will be for schools to determine who is and is not vaccinated.