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The mask mandate remains in place for Cumberland County schools after the Cumberland County Board of Education voted Thursday to take no action.

“Cumberland County has some of the lowest infection rates in the state,” said Tony Brock, 5th District representative. “I don’t think that’s an accident. I think it’s through the efforts of all of our teachers, our custodial staff, our cafeteria staffs, and the kids buying into it. 

“Let’s move on and not mess with something good, and keep praying that it stays good.”

Some parents were frustrated with the board’s stance. 

Parent Sarah Matthews, in an email to the Chronicle, said the board was not listening to parents. “Our numbers are incredibly low for positive COVID — less than 10 with students and staff. The county is also low.”

She questioned notice provided to parents about the possibility of a mask mandate. Initial draft reopening plans for the school system had called for masks to be worn by those who wanted to wear them, not a blanket mandate for everyone in the school system. When the board voted on the reopening plan on July 21, they voted to require masks or face coverings on school grounds. 

Teresa Boston, 8th District representative, said the item had been placed on Thursday’s agenda because the board had said it would revisit the mandate when it voted in July to require masks be worn by teachers, staff and students.

Rebecca Hamby, 7th District representative, said she had heard from many parents over the past two months, but she had also talked to students. 

“I don’t know the answers,” Hamby said. “But in listening to some of the children, I do know that we have some who are having headaches from wearing the masks.”

Hamby pointed to a July survey on the school’s reopening plan, which showed 125 employees wanted masks to be required out of 542 responses. It was one of multiple safety precautions the survey asked about. One principal wanted to require masks as a prevention measure out of the 12 principals.  

The parent survey at the time did not include a question specifically on masks. It asked how many parents were likely to send their children to school in August, with 64.7% of the 4,420 respondents saying they were likely or very likely to send their children back to school. The next question found 52.4% saying they preferred returning on a normal schedule while 19.7% wanted an online or virtual school option. The survey also asked about home internet access and transportation available. 

Hamby pointed to comments from parents last month that opposed the mask mandate. She also said there was a parent survey she said board members did not consider.

Stace Karge, 9th District representative, quoted from the Centers for Disease Control, which advocated masks to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in schools. 

According to the CDC, masks or other face coverings help stop droplets from entering the air when the wearer coughs, sneezes or raises their voice. As an example of “source control,” it helps slow the spread of the virus particularly among asymptomatic or presymptomatic individuals. 

“Masks are meant to protect other people in case the wearer is unknowingly infected,” she read. 

Karge said the board had provided flexibility by authorizing masks, face shields and other barriers, and that teachers could allow students to remove masks when “situationally appropriate,” such as when outside or when social distancing.

“I understand no one likes this. I don’t like it. But there’s a lot of things I don’t like that are good for us,” Karge said. “The CDC is what’s driving this bus, and we have to respect that.”

Last week, Cumberland County reported 104 active cases. There have been 18 deaths in Cumberland County since the health crisis began in March, with 55 county residents hospitalized due to the virus. 

In the school system, there were five students with active cases last week and six staff members. Sixty-one students were quarantined due to having had close contact with someone who tested positive while six staff members were quarantined. 

Earlier in the meeting, Director of Schools Ina Maxwell reviewed guidelines on students either testing positive for the virus or deemed to have been in “close contact,” defined as within six feet of someone with COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more.

Students or staff exposed to the virus must quarantine at home for 14 days from the time of their last exposure to the virus. During this time, students can take part in virtual learning, but they may not return to the school facility or any school activities. 

Maxwell said families were provided an orientation to the virtual learning platform.

“Our teachers have gone above and beyond to make learning accessible for all students in the school system,” she said. 

Anita Hale, 4th District representative, said she had been contacted by a parent who questioned why their child had to quarantine when they had been wearing a mask.

Maxwell said CDC guidelines still require anyone who has been in close contact with someone with the virus to quarantine.

The CDC recommends individuals in quarantine not leave their homes during this time. If they do, they should wear a cloth mask or face covering.

Individuals who test positive for the virus must isolate at home for at least 10 days from symptom onset or positive test, and after being fever-free for 24 hours with improving symptoms. 

If someone lives in a home with someone who tests positive, they must quarantine during that isolation period and 14 days beyond in the event of exposure to the virus.

Maxwell also pointed to an update on enrollment in virtual learning, which has dropped from 1,171 students on Aug. 12, to 638 students in September.

Hale said the faculty survey pointed to a preference for requiring masks in the common areas, such as hallways. 

Shirley Parris, 3rd District representative, said she had not had any parents contact her regarding masks. 

Brock moved to “move on” with the remainder of the night’s agenda, supported by Karge. The motion passed with Hamby offering a “reluctant” yes vote and Boston passing. 

In other action, the board approved an application for a state grant to support school reopening. The $100,000 grant would allow the school system to purchase materials to support early childhood learning for grades pre-K through second grade in the event the school system must move to a remote learning platform. 

The boxes would include things like white boards students can use to practice their writing, letter tiles or counting cubes, and other items that can help reinforce early childhood learning objectives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.