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New Hanover school board votes 5-2 to keep mask mandate, Brunswick County goes 'mask optional'

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The debate over masking in schools has been consistently thorny, exacerbated both by evolving understanding of the effectiveness of cloth masks and by fresh waves of Covid variants like delta and omicron.

At last night’s meeting, the New Hanover County Board of Education voted 5-2 to keep the mask mandate in place for the school district.

The decision was contentious, with board members Pete Wildeboer and Nelson Beaulieu voting to make masks optional — and vocal opponents of student masking protesting in the audience.

Under state law, school districts must vote on a mask mandate monthly. New Hanover dropped its mandate in December, and brought it back early last month as the Omicron variant caused a spike in Covid cases.

Advocates for masking have pointed to the risk of more student quarantines, and staff shortages, if masks are optional. The district's current policy, following the North Carolina Strong Schools 'toolkit,' is that '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.'

Despite more relaxed guidelines for quarantines, proponents of masking, including board member Stefanie Adams, have pointed to districts like Pender County, which has been 'mask optional' since October as an example of the risk of dropping the mask mandate. Pender schools saw over 600 employees and students quarantined last month.

Opponents to masking have been pointing to studies — and the CDC's own admission, last month — that cloth masks are less effective against Covid, particularly the omicron variant. In voting against the mask mandate last month, board member Wildeboer said, "if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right with N95 masks.”

However, some vocally oppose all masking, and likely wouldn't be swayed by greater availability of higher-quality N-95-style masks, even if provided by the district.

Those against masking also pointed to a growing body of research on the effects of masking on learning, especially for special needs students — although, while some groups (like the American Federation of Teachers, the national teachers union) support an evidence-based 'offramp' from masking, the frequently include the caveat of waiting for the omicron surge to pass.

More from NPR: Debate rages over whether kids should wear masks at school

Also last night, the Brunswick County school board narrowly voted 3-to-2 to make masking optional after reinstating a mandate last month.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.