Beaufort County Board of Education votes to make masks optional for 2021-22 school year

Published 6:46 pm Tuesday, July 27, 2021

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The Beaufort County Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to make masks optional for all of the district’s students and employees.

The new policy will take effect when the new school year begins in August. It does not apply to the final days of summer school.

Earlier this month, the state unveiled its updated StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit to align with new recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state now recommends that schools require all K-8 students and staff to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status, and that all unvaccinated high school students and staff wear masks indoors. Stephen Rawson, the school board’s attorney, emphasized to the board that those are recommendations, not requirements. The updated state guidance will go into effect Friday, the same day the statewide mask mandate ends.

Several hours before the meeting Tuesday, the CDC recommended that everyone including vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where COVID-19 case numbers are surging — specifically areas with at least 50 new cases per 100,000 people in the past week. The CDC is also recommending that all students and staff at schools nationwide wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. Rawson noted that the CDC’s guidance doesn’t have the force of law.
Rawson added that the CDC’s order requiring masks on public transportation is till in place, which means masks will still be required on school buses. Asked why the CDC’s guidance on mask-wearing elsewhere doesn’t have the force of law but its order regarding masks on public transportation does, Rawson said the CDC has authority over public conveyances.

“What they would do as far as enforcement, I leave that to your discretion,” Rawson said. “…When it comes to schools, that’s generally a state issue. The federal government doesn’t own school properties, they don’t own school buildings. State law controls that.

After much discussion, with several board members publicly stating their desire to make masks optional and let parents make that decision, Butch Oliver made the motion to make masks optional across the district. Part of the discussion involved potentially stating in the policy that the school system would recommend masks but not require them. But that language wasn’t included in the motion, and therefore isn’t part of the policy.

Board Chairwoman Carolyn Walker was concerned about potential issues that could stem from masks being required on buses but not in schools. She was concerned that drivers would need to be on a “constant vigil” to determine who can enter the bus based on whether they’re wearing a mask.

Rawson said the order mandating masks on public conveyances states that the bus driver and the school system as a whole must use “best efforts to ensure that a person on a conveyance wears a mask while board, disembarking and during the duration of travel.” Some of the examples of best efforts he mentioned include boarding only students who are wearing a mask and having masks available for those who don’t have one, educating people about the mask requirement, monitoring passengers for compliance and disembarking those who don’t respond to requests for compliance.

Before the vote, Oliver asked Rawson what the school board could do to cover itself from a legal standpoint in making masks optional.  Rawson responded with three main points.

The first was point was liability, or specifically what would happen if someone caught COVID-19 at school once masks weren’t required and decided to take legal action. Rawson said the district’s liability in such a case would be “low, but not zero.”

“If someone gets sick and, God forbid, dies from COVID, and they point to the school as the place they got it, they’re going to have a high bar to clear,” Rawson said. “They’re gonna have to show legally the school system had a duty to prevent that illness. I could see them getting there, particularly given the CDC guidance. Then they have to show that you were negligent in failing to adhere to that. It strikes me as hard for them to make that case when the state guidance is a recommendation. … Then the third one they going to have to do is they’re gonna have to show causation. They have to show they got COVID in our schools because we didn’t require that.

“Not because you were standing at a bus stop because some other peoples’ parents had it, and we had no control over that, or because you went to a birthday part on Wednesday night and picked it up there but now you’re claiming you got it Thursday.”

Rawson also advised the school board to be mindful about how they would word the motion, noting that the difference between recommending but not requiring masks and stating that the district wouldn’t be wearing masks could be somewhat significant from a legal standpoint.

Rawson also cautioned that an optional mask policy could lead to bullying — unmasked students harassing students who are wearing a mask, or vice versa. That could present a liability issue for the schools. He recommended that administrators make sure that students and parents know that they need to respect the choices of others.