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School board keeps mask mandate in place

The Beaufort County Schools Board of Education voted Tuesday to keep its mask mandate in place. It was the first time the board revisited the mask mandate since Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law a bill that requires all school boards to vote monthly on whether they should change their respective mask policies.

The board voted 5-4 in favor of a motion to keep the mandate in place. Voting in favor of the motion were Terry Draper, Carolyn Walker, Michael Bilbro, E.C. Peed and Eltha Booth; voting against it were Butch Oliver, T.W. Allen, Terry Williams and Mac Hodges.

Assistant Superintendent Mark Doane shared the school system’s COVID-19 metrics, which were accurate as of Tuesday evening. Since Aug. 2, which marks the return of Beaufort County Early College High School students as well as the beginning of some extracurricular activities, the district had quarantined 1,056 students, and 216 students had tested positive for COVID-19. As for staff members, 91 had been quarantined. Doane noted that if a student or staff member is quarantined because they are a close contact of someone with the virus, the school system can’t require them to get tested, making it harder for the school system to track the exact amount of positive cases.

Doane said 739 students and 49 staff members are currently quarantined.

“I’m totally confused,” Williams said, “and I’m not the only one because I’ve had the same discussion with other board members, teachers, principals. … I agreed to the masks because we said if kids had their mask on, if they stayed in close contact they wouldn’t be quarantined. … How in the world do we have 800 kids quarantined, if they have a mask on they’re not supposed to be quarantined?

“The unintelligent comment would be, “Well, he must not be wearing a mask,’” Williams added. “But I don’t believe that.”

Superintendent Matthew Cheeseman recommended that the school board mandate masks based in part on information contained in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit. The quarantining protocols in that toolkit are less severe if the individuals involved are wearing masks. Cheeseman brought up specific examples during a previous board meeting.

“There are in-school circumstances such as lunch, PE, team sports such as football, volleyball that would take a lot of people out,” Cheeseman said Tuesday. “There are circumstances where the adult in the room cannot confirm which kids wore (masks) properly and which did not, so we err on the side of caution.”

Cheeeseman again referenced the toolkit.

“You are somewhat competing against and strategizing against the same toolkit that the seven nurses and 14 principals have to use,” Cheeseman said. “The best competition I have is the vaccine, of which K-5 doesn’t have that option. 6-12 do, but a small percentage has taken it. In terms of your workforce, 60% of your workforce has taken advantage of the vaccine.”