In contradiction to the prevailing trend and recommendatios from local doctors, the Lincoln County Health Department, and the NC Dept. of Health & Human Services, the Lincoln County Board of Education voted Tuesday evening to make masks optional effective Sept. 29th. The motion by Heather Rhyne also incuded a requirement that students and staff need to be on school grounds for learning unless they are COVID-19 positive or have a written quarantine order from the health department.
The board had previously voted twice-once in late July and again on August 10th, for a 'masks optional' policy; but on Aug. 17th, following a request from Lincoln County Health Director Davin Madden, Superintendent Dr. Aaron Allen announced that all students and staff would be required to wear masks for at least 30 days. That 30 day period is up this Saturday.
Dr. Inga Kish, chief medical officer of Atrium Health-Lincoln had asked to speak at the meeting, and her name appeared on the list of people who would that was on the agenda. So was that of Dr. Elisabeth Stoffel of Atrium Health-Denver. But neither was allowed to speak. Five people did speak including Kevin Sanders of Iron Station who called the mask mandate an "overreaction to this illness." Sanders said if someone gets COVID, there's a 99% chance they'll survive. He said masks "are not for health, but for control." He warned that "vaccination requirements are coming next."
Stacy Pattison, also from Iron Station, referenced the refusal to allow Dr. Kish to speak in her comments. "You need to listen to the local hospital, to doctors who serve our community," she said in asking for the mask mandate to be extended.
East Lincoln resident Emily Wagner said since Dr. Stoffel wasn't allowed to speak, she would read a letter form her. Two other speakers spoke in favor of extending the mask mandate, one of them saying that 112 of the 115 school systems in North Carolina are now requiring masks.
Health Director Davin Madden gave his weekly report on COVID a day early to the school board, noting that the delta surge is still very much active. Madden showed graphics that included a report that in the pst 30 days, the number of new cases in those under age 18 in Lincoln County was 27% of all cases--and that in the past 14 days, that percentage has increased to 36%. Madden also referenced the report on cases from the schools that showed the number of cases in schools has increased from 37 the first week of school to 90 the second week and 126 last week.
Dr. Elizabeth Tillson, the Chief Medical Officer of the NCDHHS, spoke at length remotely, echoing concerns that masks are a necessary part of battling the spread of COVID.
The change for Lincoln County Schools goes in the opposite direction of what most school boards have done since school started. Lincoln, Catawba, Gaston and Cleveland County schools all adopted 'masks optional' policies before school started. So did Newton-Conover Schools and Lincoln Charter School. Hickory City Schools voted to require masks. Before the first day of school for Lincoln County Schools, Health Director Madden issued his request of all schools in the county to require masks for 30 days. Gaston and Cleveland County school boards reversed their original decision; Gaston County at the request of their Health Dept. Lincoln Charter School opened to students Aug. 11th 'masks optional,' but following multiple cases of COVID, their board decided to require masks. In a meeting Monday evening (Sept. 13th), the board voted to continue requiring masks. The subject will be revisited at their next meeting Sept. 27th.
Newton-Conover Schools also reversed their earlier decision and are now requiring masks, and the Catawba County Board of Education adopted a mask mandate effective Sept. 2nd.
Lincoln County Schools are not alone in going back on their decision to require masks. The Harnett County School Board voted 3-2 Monday night to make masks optional in schools starting Oct. 5th.
Union County Schools, who have been 'masks optional' from the beginning, decided Monday to continue that way despite huge numbers of students in quarantine because of COVID.
There are other school systems who are tightening instead of loosening restrictions. During a Monday meeting, the Orange County school board decided to close high risk athletic programs until the end of Septemgber.
heard recommendations for its athletic programs amid the pandemic.
Following guidance from NCDHHS and the Orange County Health Department, the closure of programs including football, basketball, wrestling and competitive cheerleading will include those actively participating in-season and those offering off-season practices or workouts. The board also decided that all student-athletes in these programs who are eligible to be vaccinated must be fully vaccinated in order to participate when programs restart.
Dr. Tillson noted in her presentation that for the first time, for the past two weeks, the number of new cases of COVID in North Carolina is highest among those age 0-17.
Vaccinations are approved only for those 12 years old or older, meaning younger students can't be vaccinated. The vaccination rate is also lowest among those 12-17 year olds of any demographic group.
Among 12-17 year olds, statewide 34.62% are fully vaccinated, and 40.36% have received at least partial vaccination.
For Lincoln County, 23.38% of the 12-17 year olds are fully vaccinated and 28.73% partially vaccinated.
In Catawba County, 28.05% are fully vaccinated and 33.61% partially vaccinated. In Gaston County, 24.19% are fully vaccinated while 29.22% have received at least one shot. In Cleveland County, the numbers are 21.43% fully vaccinated and 27.22% partially vaccinated.
The numbers for young adults are better, but still well below 50%. For Lincoln County, 32.89% of those 18-24 are fully vaccinated; for Catawba County, 36.11%; for Gaston, 30.81% and for Cleveland, 23.79%.
The latest health dept. report for Lincoln County shows that about half of all new COVID cases are among those under age 25.