After less than one week of school, Whiteville City Schools Board of Education on Monday reinstated its mask mandate for all students and staff effective Tuesday to combat high COVID-19 spread in a 3-1 vote. It will also implement virtual instruction Wednesday through Friday to “reset,” said Superintendent Marc Whichard.
“I believe we’re all on the same page: Virtual instruction is not favorable for student learning,” Whichard said. “But to clear out where we are and reset properly, this is the best approach that we can take at this time.”
In mid-December, the board decided to make masks optional. At that time, the rate of tests coming back positive was less than 5%.
Now, the positivity rate is almost 30%, according to Whichard. As a result, almost 275 students and staff tested positive or went under quarantine in the first week of class after the holiday break.
“The numbers have increased dramatically,” Whichard said.
Board members Coleman Barbour, Dave Flowers and Kandle Rogers voted in favor of Whichard’s recommendation to reinstate the mask mandate and go virtual for three days. Board member Greg Merritt voted against.
Merritt said that the more contagious omicron variant was not a “killer” like the original strain and the delta variant. “We don’t need to be panicking,” Merritt said. “I don’t want us, as an education system, to give that impression that we’ve got to suspend school because it’s a killer.”
A total of 238 Columbus Countians have died during the pandemic from COVID-19 related complications, according to Health Director Kim Smith Monday morning. The latest death was on Jan. 6.
In addition, on Dec. 30 and Jan. 7, the North Carolina State Board of Education updated its guidance to include shortening quarantine recommendations from 10 to five days and allowing individuals not wearing masks who have been exposed to return to school following negative COVID-19 tests.
“Our school nurses are already stretched to the max in terms of being able to contact trace, contact parents and make decisions,” Whichard said. “Now it will be almost impossible for them to determine which students need to wear masks when they come back.”
Whichard added that the schools’ vendor of COVID-19 tests is now running out of PCR and rapid tests.
Merritt was critical of the test-to-stay guidance. “Let’s not let Gov. Roy Cooper keep them at home because he doesn’t have tests for us to test our children,” he said. “My job, like y’all’s, is to see that our kids get their education.”
County upholds mandate with modification
Columbus County Schools will continue requiring students, staff and visitors to wear face masks in school buildings and vehicles for another month after a 3–1 vote by the school board Monday. The board modified the policy to tell principals to find ways to give students mask breaks.
Dan Strickland made the motion, which was seconded by Steve Long. Randy Coleman made the only vote against it.
Worley T. Edwards urged Superintendent Deanne Meadows to make sure enforcement is consistent. A parent complained during the public comment period that his son had been suspended for allowing his mask to droop while other students on the same campus were not disciplined. Two other parents spoke against the mask policy, saying it was ineffective and even harmful. About 16 people attended the meeting, with nine staying for the vote.
The county school system announced Monday morning that dozens of students and staff were infected with COVID-19 or were in quarantine after exposure connected with school. Meadows said that at least one CCS campus was short-staffed enough that it might have to go virtual, and she had warned all principals to be ready for virtual learning on a school-by-school basis.
Meadows said that her “whole point about the mask” was, “I want kids to be in school.”
County Health Director Kim Smith sent the board a letter Jan. 6 urging both vaccination and mask use based on data from the Centers for Disease Control showing high community transmission of the highly contagious omicron variant of the virus. Smith pointed to recent increases in positive tests among children and predicted that the current case surge would likely last four to five weeks, “Then hopefully we will see a decrease in the rate of infection as the vaccination rate increases and masking continues.”
Meanwhile, “Face coverings remain a critical tool for protecting children and staff and keeping them safe in the classroom,” Smith said.
–Includes reporting by Diana Matthews