With 78 Dare County students currently infected with COVID-19 and more than 400 students in quarantine, the Dare County Board of Education unanimously voted on Sept. 1 to reverse its Aug. 5 decision and mandate universal masking for all students, staff and visitors in Dare County School buildings. The mandate is effective beginning Thursday, Sept. 2.
The board also voted to allow parents to change their student’s status from virtual learning to in-person learning or vice versa through Sept. 6 at 5 p.m. Students will be required to continue in their chosen mode through the first semester.
Also, the board voted to allow lead administrators to limit non-essential visitors in their school buildings as well as to make vaccine information available on the district’s COVID-19 website by providing a link to the Dare County Health and Human Services vaccine information.
Due to new legislation from the N.C. General Assembly requiring school boards to have a policy on masks and to vote monthly on that policy, the Dare County Board of Education will revisit its policy on a regular basis.
The 7-0 Sept. 1 vote comes on the heels of a number of pleas by local medical professionals asking the board to mandate universal mask wearing, including a letter from Outer Banks Hospital Chief of Staff Dr. Daniel Dwyer indicating that local medical facilities were taxed and in crisis due to the surge in cases caused by the Delta variant. A petition by local medical providers also circulated last week also asking for the mandate.
Board Vice Chair Margaret Lawler, the sole member who voted against parental choice on masking at the Aug. 5 meeting, made the motion for universal masking following the recommendation by Superintendent John Farrelly. Both Farrelly and Dare County Health and Human Services Director Sheila Davis made a similar recommendation on Aug. 5.
Farrelly told board members on Sept. 1 that of the 399 that were currently quarantined as of the morning of Sept. 1, 350 of them would not have been quarantined had there been a universal mask mandate in place. Farrelly also noted that the number of instructional days missed by students currently in quarantine is 5,586.
“I don’t want to get into a public debate about masks,” Farrelly asserted. “But I’m just stating that if the goal is to keep kids in school, if that’s the goal, then the path is either to reduce the number of kids who are in schools or go to universal masking.”
The quarantining guidelines from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services indicate that if there is universal masking in the schools, only the person who tests positive for COVID-19 must quarantine, regardless of vaccination status.
If there is not universal masking, however, any unvaccinated person within six feet of a COVID-19 positive case must be quarantined. The Dare County Department of Health and Human Services follows the guidance from the state.
Before the vote, Farrelly noted that Dare County was currently among only nine North Carolina school districts currently without a universal masking policy in place. On Aug. 27, the Currituck County Board of Education reversed its previous decision and instituted a universal mask mandate effective Aug. 30. The Currituck district is also instituting optional COVID-19 testing on-site.
In their remarks, a number of members of the Republican-dominated board indicated that the vote was a difficult decision and that they approached the prospect of universal masking with reluctance. But ultimately, they acknowledged that given the students already being quarantined, universal masking was needed to keep the school doors open.
“This has been a very trying time,” stated Board Member Frank Hester. “I think the thing that probably bothers me the most is the division that this has caused within our community.”
Board Member David Twiddy added that, “I want to keep the schools open for our students, and as long as they are wearing a mask, the quarantines should be much lower based on what was presented tonight.”
In his remarks, Board Member Joe Tauber asserted that, “This board still, notwithstanding the Dare County Health Department’s ability to quarantine our students, we’re still in favor of parental rights in our schools.”
“Masks will not halt this virus, but I suppose they can slow it,” added Susan Bothwell, who raised questions about the efficacy of masks, but added, “As I see it, the board of education’s goal is to have kids in school with face-to-face learning.”
Despite the passions and anger stirred by the masking issue at schools, there was really only one extended vocal outburst during the meeting.
For the most part, the crowd of roughly 60 or so sat quietly, with a few of them brandishing signs. But right before the vote on the masking policy, a man rose at the back of the bleachers in the First Flight High gym and began shouting repeatedly before he was ushered out by several Dare County Sheriff’s Deputies. As Board Vice-Chair Margaret Lawler tried to control crowd noise, a woman began shouting before she too was led from the room.
The one school board member who was at the meeting remotely rather than in person, and who spoke infrequently, was Chairperson Mary Ellon Ballance. Given widespread speculation to that effect, the Voice asked Ballance on several occasions if she had either contacted COVID-19 or was in quarantine. She declined to answer.