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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

New Hanover County Board of Education drops mask mandate, with a few exceptions, for now

The board meeting on Tuesday, December 7th, 2021.
Rachel Keith
The board meeting on Tuesday, December 7th, 2021.

On Tuesday the New Hanover County School Board repealed the mask mandate, effective immediately — voting 4-3, with Board Members Stefanie Adams, Judy Justice, and Stephanie Walker dissenting.

The only exceptions to the policy are masking on buses (which are covered by federal law), in the presence of students identified as ‘medically fragile’, and for volunteers working with students.

Board Member Hugh McManus said he was ready to try the mask optional policy, “Are we going to have to live with this virus? Probably. We tied ourselves to the health department; we were steadfast as long as the health department kept their mandate, they dropped it.”

But McManus added that “If the numbers go up, and if they do, we’re going to have to rethink and talk about it.”

Board Member Nelson Beaulieu agreed with McManus on the mask optional policy saying, “In the two years of dealing with Covid-19, it’s going to go up, it’s going to go down. It yo-yos, it’s the only thing that’s consistent about Covid-19. [...] I will continue to support masks optional until hospitalizations and deaths increase, not cases.”

But Member Stefanie Adams said, for her, the issue is about the loss of instructional time.

“Last week, New Hanover County Schools had 35 cases, which led to 23 quarantines. In Brunswick County, they had 75 cases, and they had 300 quarantines because they are mask optional. In Pender County, 7 cases meant 40 quarantines. If we are trying to keep our students in school, masks are the way to go, and I’m going to stay steadfast with that. It’s about the safety and protection of our students and staff,” said Adams.

According to the NC Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit, if students are fully vaccinated and there is a Covid-19 exposure (typically defined as 15-minutes or more, cumulative over a 24-hour period, within a 6 feet distance) at school, and they are not experiencing symptoms, they will not have to quarantine.

When students don't have to quarantine.
When students don't have to quarantine.

However, if a student is not vaccinated and there’s found to be an exposure, there will be typically that 10-day quarantine period.

Quarantining procedures from the NC Strong Schools Toolkit
Quarantining procedures from the NC Strong Schools Toolkit

Members Judy Justice and Stephanie Walker agreed with Adams and were concerned that positivity rates are rising locally from about 2% to 5%.

Stephanie Walker said, “But seeing the rates this high again; I’m feeling like I want to pause on that,” that being the repeal of the mask mandate.

While a health department representative was not there to give a presentation of Covid-19 metrics, Assistant Superintendent Julie Varnam told the board that there is a ‘substantial’ spread of the virus in the county — and that there are 21 people hospitalized at New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

The board also did not receive any official guidance from the county health department about the potential spread of the omicron variant.

According to recent health department data, about 8% of 5 to 11 year-olds are fully vaccinated; for those 12 to 17, it’s 49%.

State law requires the district to revisit the mask issue once a month; the board will vote again on the issue in January.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR