Mask mandate for Polk schools
Polk County School Board reverses decision on masks during special meeting
COLUMBUS—After having to close 3 schools temporarily because of COVID-19 cases and having more than 550 teachers and students in quarantine, the Polk County School Board reversed its earlier decision and is now requiring masks.
The Polk County School Board called a special meeting on Tuesday night and approved a resolution requiring masks at schools for all students and faculty beginning immediately by a 5-2 vote.
Members Judy Jackson and Danielle Gibbs voted against the motion, while members Rick Covil, Sara Bell, Mike Ashworth, Cindy Allen and Sherry Page voted for the motion.
The meeting was held at Stearns with limited seating and no public comments. There were crowds gathered outside on both sides of the issue. The school mask issue has seemed to split the county over the last several weeks.
Polk County Schools Superintendent Aaron Greene presented to the board his recommendation, which was to require masks given the recent events. Polk County did not make it 2 weeks of school with masks optional before having to temporarily close Polk Central, the middle and high schools. All students except those quarantined can return to school on Wednesday.
Greene said board members are not medical professionals and they know there are strong opinions around COVID, but the goal is the same.
“To keep our kids in school,” Greene said.
He said there are 6-8 positive cases a day currently, with the school system having 90 positives and 550 people quarantined.
“This is a different animal than we dealt with last year,” Greene said, adding that the school system is seeing a bigger impact on staff and student quarantines.
This year the school system is seeing clusters in classrooms.
“COVID is here and is spreading in Polk County,” Greene said.
He said they have had quarantines with bus drivers, teachers, food workers and administrative staff and they cannot have students in school without that staff.
“If we continue in the current manner we will be sending more kids home,” Greene said.
He said with mask, the quarantines will be within 3 feet, which would greatly reduce the number of students who have to be quarantined.
“None of us are winning,” Greene said. “When kids are out of school nobody is winning. At the end of it, nobody wants kids in masks but I see no other way given the rules we have.”
The ruling is temporary, with the board being updated weekly on the numbers. The board also has to meet monthly and decide whether or not to keep face coverings mandatory per a new law from North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper. Polk County’s ruling is that all staff and students wear face coverings indoors. The requirement only applies indoors, with students having breaks, not required while eating or outdoors or during exercise. The board also is making exceptions for students who have medical or psychological issues. A form will be available at schools or online at polkschools.org.
Board member Jackson reviewed what happened last year and said she does not feel like the board has enough data to make a decision. She wanted to see a breakdown of cases per grade. Jackson said she would also like to see only the sick student quarantined, not the entire class, saying the guidelines are not mandatory. She said vaccines do not work and masks do not work.
“As soon as they get out of school these children will be outside without masks on just like they are in school,” Jackson said. “I have concerns this will continue to go on and on. At this time I would say I do not want to see masks on the children because we do not have the data at this time.”
Page said she is for masks because she feels like the board needs to keep as many students in school as possible.
Gibbs said she feels like the board has been put in an impossible situation and feels like the department of health needs to be making this decision.
“This is not what a board of education should be voting on,” Gibbs said. “It is completely unfair.”
Gibbs said she feels like when the school board puts mask on kids parents are going to pull their kids from school and the school system stands to lose 200-250 kids.
“I want these kids in schools,” said Gibbs.
Allen said she just wants to keep children in the classroom and believes at this time the right decision is to make masks mandatory temporarily.
Ashworth said he agrees with everybody. He said if the school system tries to go remote that is not going to work.
“I don’t feel like we have much choice,” Ashworth said. “I want the kids in the classroom and I feel like we are between a rock and a hard place.”
Members asked what is temporary. Greene said they can look at parameters for members to make those decisions. He said 6-8 positives a day is not sustainable. Last year, he said, there was 1 positive a day.
“Spreading in our classrooms is a problem,” Greene said.
There were a couple of outbursts during the meeting, with one woman in the audience saying, “Do y’all not care about our kids?”
Greene said the school system will honor those exceptions for students who cannot wear face coverings.
The board also agreed to move its next meeting up until Sept. 13.
Following is the resolution approved by the 5-2 vote:
Resolution addressing COVID 19 healthcare protocols:
THAT WHEREAS, this Board previously voted to make masks optional for students and staff at a Specially Called Meeting on August 2, 2021; and
WHEREAS, since said meeting the Board has received and monitored information from the office of Polk County Health and Human Services as to the virulent spread of COVID 19 infections due primarily to the very contagious and fast moving Delta variant; and
WHEREAS, the Board has attempted to operate our schools without mandatory masking of students and staff while otherwise following the NC Strong Schools Health Care Toolkit; and
WHEREAS, despite the best efforts of school personnel, there are rapidly escalating numbers of students and staff who are testing positive for the virus or exhibiting symptoms of the virus, requiring an overwhelming number of more than 550 quarantines of students and staff in two weeks and the temporary closing of 3 school sites; and
WHEREAS, the Board feels that our schools cannot continue to effectively operate and educate children in accordance with our mission, unless all possible efforts are made to contain the further spread of COVID 19 in our schools, reduce the number of students and staff quarantined as a result of exposure, and keep students in school.
THEREFORE, in order to keep our students and staff, their families and community members safe and to continue to provide effective learning/educational opportunities available for our students by keeping them in school, the Board of Education for Polk County, North Carolina does hereby adopt the following COVID 19 safety protocols as recommended by Superintendent Aaron Greene, based upon current healthcare data and recommendations from North Carolina Health and Human Services and Polk County Health and Human Services:
- The proper wearing of face coverings shall be required for all students, staff and visitors inside Polk County Schools buildings during the instructional day and in instructional settings.
- The requirement will be temporary with Administration providing weekly updates on cases and impacts, and it is noted the Board is required to revisit and approve this decision on at least a monthly basis.
- Administration shall develop and implement a process to determine individual exceptions due to documented medical, psychological, or developmental circumstances as they may exist.
- Masks will not be required outdoors.
- In accordance with the Toolkit and as practiced last school year, frequent mask breaks will be encouraged as are opportunities for students to learn and recess outdoors.
- Masks will not have to be worn while students and staff are eating or drinking, or when involved in strenuous activity.
- This resolution is effective upon the date and time of its approval.
APPROVED AND ADOPTED this Seventh Day of September, Two Thousand and Twenty-One by a vote of 5 to 2.