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Beaufort County school board reverses course, will require masks for students and employees

With a 6-3 vote Wednesday, the Beaufort County Schools Board of Education accepted Superintendent Matthew Cheeseman’s recommendation to make masks mandatory indoors for students and staff as of Aug. 23, reversing a decision the board made three weeks ago. The board will revisit its mask policy on a monthly basis.

Cheeseman said making the recommendation was “difficult” but necessary. He said requiring masks will give the district its best chance of keeping students in the classroom and away from virtual learning, based on state guidelines and protocols for quarantining.

Eltha Booth made the motion to accept the recommendation. Also voting to accept were Carolyn Walker, E.C. Peed, Terry Williams, Michael Bilbro and Terry Draper. Mac Hodges, Butch Oliver and T.W. Allen voted against the motion.

The mask policy is applicable on school property and on school buses. Masks don’t need to be worn during recess or other activities outdoors. Athletes don’t need to wear masks when participating in outdoor sports. As for indoor sports, athletes who are actively in the game don’t need to wear masks, but those on the bench need to remain masked.

Cheeseman received guidance from Beaufort County Health Director Jim Madson, who advised that everyone in the school system should wear masks regardless of vaccination status, given the high transmission rate of COVID-19 and the Delta variant.

The board previously voted unanimously to make masks optional for all students and staff. But case counts and COVID-19 related hospitalizations have continued to climb since then, prompting the state to urge all districts to implement mask mandates.

Cheeseman said approximately 60% of BCS employees have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Anyone 12 and older can receive a vaccine. Health department statistics show that approximately 19.5% of Beaufort County residents ages 12-17 have been at least partially vaccinated, and 12.6% of them are fully vaccinated. Cheeseman said vaccinations for that age group “have not been taken advantage of at the percentage of which we would like to see within our own county and our district.”

“Nothing beats a vaccination,” Cheeseman said. “… That’s what keeps you at work, that’s what keeps you at school.”

There was some hesitancy among board members who voted in favor of the mask mandate, but they were motivated in part by the desire to keep students in the classroom. A couple of them said they were receiving texts during the meeting asking them to vote against the mandate.

“As T.W. said, no one despises masks more than he does, unless it’s me,” Williams said. “Me and T.W. can argue over who despises them the most. “…But we aren’t living right now in the same world we were three weeks ago when we first decided. I get it, I understand.

“… I can assure you if I raise my hand and agree to this,” Williams added, “my family, my grandkids that go to our schools — pretty much everyone I know is going to be more upset with me than they were probably yesterday. But I can live with that.”

Cheeseman used an example to show how a mask mandate, combined with a higher vaccination rate, could make a significant difference when it comes to keeping students in the classroom.”

Oliver, who voted against the mandate, said before the vote that he wanted to make sure that accommodations would be available for students with disabilities. Cheeseman said tools such as clear face shields will be available, although individual needs can be addressed on a case-by-case basis.