When students return to classrooms for in-person instruction, as early as next month for some school districts, wearing a mask won’t be an option; it’ll be required.
But what happens when a child attending school is unable to wear a mask or refuses to do so, State Board Education (SBE) member James Ford asked Friday during a remote SBE meeting.
“The notion of wearing a mask; it has been politicized,” Ford said. “If, for whatever reason, students or families decide not to comply with that minimum requirement, what is the expectation of enforcement?”
Here’s how SBE Chairman Eric Davis answered:
“If for some reason, someone is unable to comply, or unwilling, then … I’m sure we can educate the child in a remote fashion,” Davis said. “That’s the reason why we’ve asked every district, every charter school to prepare a remote instruction plan so that, in the event that, for whatever reason, it’s not possible or acceptable to be in one of our buildings, we can continue to educate that child in a remote fashion. We’re conscious of educating all, but also of ensuring the best we can the safety of those who are in our buildings.”
Davis’ comments came near the end of a presentation by Susan Gale Perry, chief deputy secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS), who gave the board an update on school reopening health and safety guidelines.
“Our best measure is to continue to do the really good prevention and education work around why face masks are a scientifically proven and an important, critical tool to mitigating risks,” Perry said. “I’m encouraged to see more and more leaders across our state and nationally supporting the wearing of face masks. It’s a good way to get our schools reopen and our economy back up and going.”
Some people have refused to comply with requests to wear masks, and critical of the requirement to do so in parts of the country, including North Carolina. They consider the mandate an assault on personal freedom.
President Donald Trump only this week acknowledged that wearing a mask is the best way to slow the spread of the coronavirus after he refused for months to wear one in public.
The update by state health officials included a clarification about face coverings.
The previous guidance stated that students, staff and visitors had to wear them when within six feet of another person. That’s no longer the case. A face covering must be worn at all times when on school grounds or riding in school vehicles “unless the person (or family member, for a student) states that an exception applies, or the person is eating, drinking, or strenuously exercising.”
Exceptions can be granted for people with a medical or behavioral condition or disability that prevents them from being able to wear a face covering, That could include trouble breathing or an inability to put on or remove a face covering without help.
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest also had a question about what it’ll take for all students to return to school for in-person instruction. It’s a question Forest has asked during at least one other SBE meeting.
“What’s the goal, what’s the standard, what’s the benchmark?” Forest asked. “How will we know we’ve actually achieved it?”
Perry said fully reopening schools will depend on a downward trajectory of flu-like symptoms reported within a 14-day period, a downward trajectory of COVID-19-related cases, a downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period and a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percentage of those tested.
“We are currently not meeting those gating criteria,” Perry said.
On Friday, state health officials reported an additional 2,102 cases of the coronavirus. So, far, at least 108,995 people in North Carolina have tested positive for the virus and 1,746 have died.
Gov. Roy Cooper directed schools to reopen under Plan B, one of three roptions districts planned to reopen under.
Plan B is a mix of in-person instruction and remote learning.
Cooper gave districts the option of reopening under the more restrictive Plan C, which calls for remote learning only. Several of the state’s larger school districts have chosen that option and will begin the new school year next month with remote learning only.
Plan A allows schools to fully reopen. It was not an option because the current coronavirus data does not support fully reopening schools.
State Treasurer Dan Folwell asked if there’s a waiver process for school districts wanting to fully reopen.
Perry responded that there is no such waiver.
Folwell asked what would happen if a school district decided to fully reopen.
Perry said NCDHHS hopes that school districts will behave responsibly and consider the risks to students, staff and families, particularly vulnerable family members at risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from the coronavirus.
“We are assuming that the districts are complying with the requirements,” Perry said. “There are a variety of tools that are available for enforcement but our starting point is always going to be around technical assistance and engaging with folks to help meet the requirements as they’re laid out.”