More than 1 million North Carolina public school students will have their first day of classes on Monday, filling buildings to levels not seen since March 2020.
But the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 is rapidly spreading across the state at the same time.
That’s sparking new concerns for some parents and leading to last-minute changes for some school districts, particularly around the issue of face masks.
At least 34 school districts have decided in the past two weeks to reverse their earlier decisions to make face masks optional. Statewide, 87 of the 115 school districts are requiring that masks be worn indoors by students, school employees and visitors for the new school year.
“We are moving in the right direction to go to masks,” Dot Cherry, vice chairwoman of the Gaston County school board near Charlotte, said during a recent vote to reverse its mask optional decision. “As this delta variant unfolds, hopefully it will reverse and go on a downward spiral so that we can get back to what we all want to get back to.”
Parent fears, school reassurances
But the delta variant, which is three times more contagious than the original coronavirus strain, may not go away as soon as some hope.
Schools are already reporting COVID cases and quarantines among students and staff. It’s mostly year-round schools, some charter schools and athletes practicing at high schools that are reporting cases now.
“I’m going to see if there any outbreaks or clusters and just pray that my children are not the first ones infected,”Adriana de Souza e Silva, a Cary parent of two elementary school students, said in an interview.
De Souza e Silva said anxiety over the COVID-19 surge is keeping her up at night. She may homeschool her children if their school begins reporting COVID outbreaks. She’s among the parents who’ve urged Wake County to reopen admission to its Virtual Academy.
Wake County Superintendent Cathy Moore tried to reassure families in the state’ s largest school district with a message on Thursday about how the school system is “going to make this a great year.”
“This year will be different — in fact, better — in many ways,” Moore wrote. “This school year brings with it a brighter promise. A sharper focus. And a deeper understanding of what we’re facing and how to handle it.
“We have a vaccine for those 12 years old and older, and we look forward to one coming soon for younger children. And we have more accurate information about how to protect ourselves and each other.”
This marks the third school year that coronavirus has disrupted things for North Carolina’s teachers and students.
Most students returning to in-person classes
When classes began last fall, the majority of the state’s public school students were starting the year with only online courses.
But now — with more knowledge about the virus, as well as seeing the negative impact of not having in-person classes — the vast majority of students will be getting face-to-face instruction on Monday.
It will be the first time some students have in-person classes since before the pandemic began in spring 2020.
Rules such as keeping their face masks on have been a learning curve for some new and returning students at year-round schools like Carpenter Elementary in Cary.
“To them, they feel like it’s back to normal,” said Diann Tucker, a third-grade teacher at Carpenter Elementary. “They think, I’m in a classroom, I can do everything I used to do. So (we’re) just having to tell them this is why you can’t do it and it’s OK. … This is what we have to do in order to make sure that we are being safe.”
The debate over masks
The question that has divided the state in the past two weeks is whether to require that face masks be worn in school or whether they should be optional. Emotions have run high. Opponents of requiring masking shouted words like “Communist” when the Rockingham County school board, north of Greensboro, voted Friday to reverse its decision to make them optional.
Last school year, Gov. Roy Cooper required that face coverings be worn in all public and private schools. Cooper, a Democrat, dropped the statewide mask mandate for this school year. But he has urged that schools require them to be worn.
Cooper said mask mandates would get better community buy-in if they were set by local school boards. But NC Child, a nonprofit advocating for North Carolina, children, has called on Cooper and other state leaders to reimpose a statewide school mask mandate.
“If we can have school dress codes, I think we can have school masks to prevent schools from being closed and children from getting cut off from the education they need,” Michelle Hughes, executive director of NC Child, said in an interview.
With the power left in their hands, school districts in more conservative parts of the state adopted policies to make masks optional. But the spread of the delta variant and pleas from Cooper and local health officials caused more than two-dozen districts to reconsider their decision to not require masks.
In particular, school leaders in multiple districts cited how new state health guidelines would allow masked students in some cases to avoid being quarantined if they were exposed to COVID-19 in school.
“We want to keep kids in school,” Carolyn Walker, chairwoman of the Beaufort County school board in northeast North Carolina, said after this week’s vote flipping the earlier decision to not require masks. “We don’t want to have to see a bunch of kids go home quarantined.”
The Rowan-Salisbury school board also reversed its decision and is now requiring masks after Superintendent Tony Watlington argued the change “is not out of fear.”
“It’s not out of politics,” Watlington continued. “It’s only that we’re in a different position than we were in mid-July. It will give us the opportunity to keep more of our kids in school for five days a week.”
The rural-urban divide
The votes in the past few weeks changed North Carolina from a state where the majority of school districts would be mask optional to one where it will be largely required.
As of Saturday, the 87 school districts requiring masks include the state’s largest districts and most of the major urban areas, such as Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Fayetteville and Durham. These districts represent 77% of the state’s public school students.
The 28 districts not requiring masks as of Friday are all in rural or “red” areas that voted for Donald Trump in last fall’s presidential election.
These districts also have, on average, lower COVID-19 vaccination rates compared to the rest of the state.
The mask-optional districts represent 14% of the state’s students. The remaining 9% of students are in charter schools, laboratory schools and the Innovative School District. It’s unclear how many of those schools are requiring masking.
In some districts, parents have attended school board meetings arguing that masks are ineffective and that the mandates are part of a government plan to take away people’s liberty.
U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a Republican, appeared at Monday’s Transylvania County school board meeting to claim that it’s only a “loud” and “small minority” that are advocating for requiring masks. He also urged the small western North Carolina district to “disobey” state quarantine rules.
“I know that unelected bureaucrats in the executive branch of the North Carolina government have put you in a very hard spot, to where they have said, ‘Oh if we just check one person who has COVID-19 test positive, we have to make the entire class go into quarantine,’” Cawthorn said.
“It’s a difficult spot to be in, but I’m telling you disobey that rule. It is wrong when people are trying to force their will upon you.”
A poll released Thursday by the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think, found that 54.7% of North Carolinians support requiring students to wear masks in schools.
Look ‘at what the evidence says’
The speech by Cawthorn and other mask-optional people helped persuade the Transylvania County school board to reverse an emergency decision their superintendent had made to require masks.
Hughes of NC Child said elected officials should only be making statements that protect the health and safety of children.
“Our elected officials need to be looking at what the evidence says and what experts like the NC Pediatric Society say about keeping our students safe and in school,” Hughes said. “That’s the guideposts that we need to be using for making decisions.
“While I recognize that there are parents who disagree, the responsibility of school boards is to look at the health and safety of all our students.”