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New Hanover County school board renews mask mandate for students and staff

Board Member Hugh McManus explained his position on the mask mandate at the Jan. 4th meeting.
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Board Member Hugh McManus explained his position on the mask mandate at the Jan. 4th meeting.

The New Hanover County Health Department reports a Covid-19 positivity rate of close to 21%. Yesterday, the school board took note of that figure and voted 5 to 2 to reinstate the mask mandate — with the exception of student athletes participating in a sporting event.

County health officials David Howard and Carla Turner told the school board that omicron is the main variant circulating in the community. They said it’s causing less severe illness when compared to Delta — but spreading more easily and rapidly than other variants.

Board Members Pete Wildeboer and Nelson Beaulieu tried to pass a motion to delay the masking decision until the county health board takes its own vote on January 18th.

But Board Member Hugh McManus emphasized with a school mask mandate only those who test positive are required to go home. Without masks, everyone who was exposed to the virus has to quarantine.

[Note: The district later clarified that "Per the North Carolina Strong School toolkit, if students are fully vaccinated, exposed to the virus, and show no symptoms, they no longer have to quarantine. Additionally, if a student is masked when exposed to a COVID-positive student, they do not have to quarantine."]

“If we’ve learned one thing in the last two years is that our kids need to be in school. I hope everyone remembers how far behind our students are, particularly our lower socioeconomic, and our priority schools. God knows they need to be in school. If a mask mandate keeps them in school, except for those who tested positive, who in god’s world doesn’t want them in school?” said McManus.

His point of view prevailed. Board Members Stephanie Walker, Stefanie Adams, and Judy Justice chimed in to support McManus. Additionally, they had concerns about staffing issues if people had to quarantine because of illness.

Wildeboer insisted that the masks do not offer much protection and claimed that the county’s latest effort to test the community is what is driving the spike in Covid numbers.

Wildeboer also quoted an unnamed county commissioner who said they wanted the board to consider other options like free rapid tests at schools (but did not elaborate how that would be done), or at least wait for medical professionals to weigh in at the January 18th health board meeting. He also said this commissioner wanted the board to understand that they themselves are not medical professionals and should wait to make their decision — and to look not at positivity rates but at hospitalization numbers and deaths.

Member Adams pressed him to disclose the commissioner who sent the message, but Wildeboer said he didn't know if "she" would approve of that.

Adams responded, "Again, the county commissioners have their responsibilities. Our responsibility is the school system and making sure we are making the best decisions for our students, keeping our students in school being educated — and if you look at the CDC, the tool kit, we are going to have massive quarantines if we go back in mask optional."

The CDC's latest guidance — which reduces recommended quarantine times — has provoked outcries from some public health officials, and caused confusion in the general public.

Related: What do new public health guidelines from the CDC mean for your family?

Meanwhile, the county's health experts contended masks do work, and pointed to the highly contagious nature of omicron for the reason Covid-19 cases are increasing.

Last week, the county tested just under 600 residents for Covid-19, about 25% of those tests came back positive.

As for Covid metrics, NHC Health Department reports about 57 patients are hospitalized with the virus at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. And there have been 305 deaths in the county since the start of the pandemic. While 63% of the county's overall population is fully vaccinated, only 29% of 12 to 18 year-olds are. It's 19% for those ages 5 to 12.

Strong Schools NC Public Health Tool Kit (Last update December 30th, 2022) offers guidance on what to do if you test positive for or have been exposed to Covid-19.

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