The Wayne County Board of Education selected a vice chairman, received a COVID-19 update and listened to parents concerned about the school mask mandate during its Monday meeting.

The board voted unanimously to appoint board member Jennifer Strickland as vice chairman. Strickland replaces former board member Joe Democko, who served as vice chairman, but resigned from the board to help take care of his ailing mother in New York.

Ken Derksen, Wayne County Public Schools communications officer, provided the board with a COVID-19 update and outlined the COVID-19 quarantine/exclusion protocols set in place to promote a safe school environment. Quarantine/exclusion protocols for students and staff include:

• Exclusion (from school) of all COVID-19 positive students and staff.

• Exclusion of all exposed individuals named as close contacts for potential exposures that have been named, within 6 feet for 15 cumulative minutes. It does not include students in school settings who are appropriately and consistently masked.

• Exclusion of symptomatic students and staff, for 11 symptoms associated with COVID-19, which include everything from fever and chills to headaches, runny nose, congestion, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Derksen said the policy has not changed since the start of the school year.

“A student who has been excluded for symptoms would need to get either an alternative diagnosis or a negative COVID-19 test to get back into school,” he said.

Exclusions due to exposures include:

• Students who are not deemed to be consistently and appropriately masked in the classroom are excluded.

• Students who are unmasked for 15 minutes or more during lunch and are named as a close contact are excluded.

• The masking exemption, when both the COVID-19 positive and close contact are consistently and appropriately masked, is not applicable outside of the school setting. This includes exposure during athletics (practice, games, travel to away games) and exposure during extracurricular activities, even on school campuses.

SCHOOL VIRUS CASES

Derksen said that WCPS has had 794 cases of COVID-19 since Aug. 6.

“Three weeks ago, we were sitting at 456,” he said. “There have been 338 cases of COVID-19 impacting our schools over the past three weeks.”

Derksen also said that three weeks ago, there were 13 positive secondary cases of COVID-19. Secondary cases are when someone who was named a close contact by someone he or she was potentially exposed to, subsequently becomes COVID-19 positive during his quarantine period.

“We have kids that are having symptoms of COVID-19,” he said. “We’ve had 1,716 kids excluded because of symptoms. We had 777 just three weeks ago. That’s 939 situations of exclusion over a three-week period.”

However, Derksen said he would remind people that out in the community, there’s been a large surge from the delta variant in recent weeks, so it’s not surprising to see a surge in the schools, too.

He said that masking at school has allowed 879 students to avoid being deemed a close contact, allowing them to remain in school in accordance with current N.C. Department of Health and Human Services guidance.

“Local masking requirements have saved the loss of 4,935 instructional days between Aug. 18 and Oct. 4 because impacted students have been appropriately and consistently masked,” Derksen said.

Strickland said the only reason she’s voting for masks right now is because the state statute requires students and staff to wear masks.

But she asked if there are any measures the board can take to help the students get out of their masks as much as possible and still be in compliance with state statutes and not have to quarantine.

David Lewis, WCPS superintendent, said he will ask principals for any ideas they may have.

Strickland said that most of the time, it’s lunch and athletics that are causing the COVID-19 positive cases.

MASK MANDATE RAISES CONCERNS

During the meeting, a parent of a WCPS student, Duane Pierson, said that by requiring masks, the school is taking away the dignity of his daughter and other local children.

“My daughter cries when she comes home because she says she feels nobody can associate with somebody because they can’t see each other,” he said. “And they’re being told to stay away from each other.”

Pierson said he feels like masks at school are not really protecting students.

“The mask issue that is getting me is the fact of the virus measures 120 nanometers in approximate size,” he said. “The pore openings of the best mask you can put on your face is 300 nanometers. That means two pieces of virus can go through every pore of the N-95 mask without touching each other or touching the mask.

“These are things that are true. It’s been put out by the Centers for Disease Control (and Prevention) and the National Institute of Health. Yet they want to talk about droplets. But the virus survives on its own and it can go right through the mask.”

Pierson said if anyone wants a 60% probability of stopping the spread of the virus through mask use, he or she would have to wear at least three layers of masks.

“There has not been one study of any evidence of probability of stopping the virus by wearing a mask,” he said.

Another parent, David Jordan, whose daughter goes to Spring Creek High School, also spoke against masking in school.

“My daughter has problems with headaches,” he said. “I can’t stand here and tell you that I want her to stay home. She will not learn staying home. It’s a very stressful situation for her.

“My point is, let’s take a realistic look at it. I understand that you’re doing what you’re needing to do to help the children. And I thank you for that.”

Strickland said students and teachers need a mask break.

Board member Wade Leatham said the frustrating part for him and probably for most parents is they can’t stand the fact that their children are being masked.

“But the way the statutes are written, our hands are tied,” he said. “I’m personally against the masks, don’t like them, can’t stand them. I don’t think it’s fair to kids.

“Parents are frustrated. This board’s frustrated. I think a lot of boards around the state are frustrated.”

Chairman Chris West said it’s an issue of keeping a child in school.

“That’s the important thing,” he said. “We all would rather our kids be at school, and our teachers, without masks. But we understand until things change, we would rather have children in the classroom.”

Board member Patricia Burden made a motion to maintain the WCPS’s existing mask mandates, which passed with a 5-1 vote. Leatham voted in opposition.