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School to open with students, teachers wearing masks

Lenoir County Public Schools students and teachers, as well as visitors and vendors, will be required to wear face coverings inside school buildings for at least the first three weeks of the academic year that begins Aug. 23.

The mask requirement, approved by the Lenoir County Board of Education on a 5-2 vote Monday night as a shield against the spread of Covid-19, will be reviewed at the Sept. 13 meeting of the school board and will be adjusted – either extended or relaxed – based on public health metrics at the time.

Ten people appeared before the board during the “public comment” portion of the Monday meeting, nine of whom asked the board to make the use of face masks optional.

Ultimately, the board’s decision hued to the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and the state’s StrongSchools NC Public Health Toolkit regarding masks for K-12 students, as well as the guidance presented by Pam Brown, Lenoir County health director, at the school board meeting. Brown said masks offer “an additional layer of protection” at a time when the virus’s Delta variant is spreading in the county, cases and hospitalizations are rising dramatically and the transmission rate has increased 10-fold since June.

According to data presented by Brown, the number of people hospitalized because of Covid-19 in the state – more than 1,300 as of Aug. 3 – has doubled since July 9; the rate of positive tests, now 10.6 percent, has doubled in the past month; and the more transmissible Delta variant accounts for nearly 90 percent of the cases in the United States.

According to data compiled by the New York Times, Lenoir County is averaging 25 new cases a day as of Aug. 9, an increase of 397 percent over the past two weeks. The vaccination rate for adults 18 and older is 48 percent, but for youth 12-17 it is 11 percent. Children under 12 are not yet eligible to receive Covid vaccinations.

Lenoir County Public Schools regularly reviews public health guidance provided by the Lenoir County Health Department, the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the StrongSchools NC Public Health Toolkit, which represents the guidance of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and Gov. Roy Cooper’s office. All those entities have said students and teachers “should” return to school wearing masks.

In accordance with state guidance, LCPS will not require screenings or temperature checks at its schools. The district will, however, continue to offer rapid Covid testing where warranted for the adults at school and, with parental permission, for students. Where a positive case is identified, the district will follow notification practices it has used in the past and the StrongSchools toolkit recommendations on quarantines.

LCPS’s masking policy makes an exception for medical or developmental conditions and does not require masks outdoors but does require masks on school buses. It applies regardless of vaccination status to students, teachers and visitors at 16 of the district’s 17 schools. The outlier, Lenoir County Early College High School, is covered by rules of Lenoir Community College, where the high school is located and where masks are required.

Teachers and students have been required to wear face coverings in the district’s schools since classes reopened for face-to-face learning last September, including the six-week Summer Enrichment Academy just ended. The incidence of Covid-19 in the schools, tracked and publicly reported weekly during the school year, varied between 0 percent and 0.83 percent of some 6,600 adults and children on campus and at LCPS work sites.