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Macon County to make masks optional in classroom, required on school buses; Jackson County to require masks 

Macon County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin announced last week that face coverings for students will be option this coming school year. Dr. Baldwin referenced the updated Strong SchoolsN C Public Health Toolkit, which states that face coverings SHOULD be required… ultimately leaving it up to the district to make a determination.

Once the current Executive Order expires on July 30th, Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin, stated that face covering mandates will become a local decision state-wide.

“Basically the guidance we’ve received at this point, is that face coverings will be a local option for school year 2021-22,” said Baldwin.“I have had several conversations with Kathy McGaha, the Macon County Health Director. Based on the current level of COVID-19 transmission in our community, she does not recommend starting the school year off requiring face coverings.”

NC Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt supported the move to allow districts across the state to make decisions locally. “Today’s guidance is critically important as school leaders are busy preparing for, or already in the midst of, a new school year,” said Superintendent Catherine Truitt. “I’m also pleased to see that local-level decision-making will be restored and flexibility provided to local officials. As a proponent of local control, I’ve felt the decision on mask mandates should be made by those most in tune with their student population and know that Superintendents, parents, and school boards will act in the best interest of their students.”

While it is up to local districts to determine individual mask policies for inside school buildings, due to an existing order from the Centers for Disease Control, masks will be required on school buses. 

“The CDC guidelines are pretty clear,” said Dr. Baldwin. “They are requiring face coverings on public transportation, which includes school buses.”

The existing requirement for school buses, paired with student safety considerations as well as best options for keeping students in the classroom as much as possible, Jackson County Schools voted Tuesday night to make masks required for the upcoming school year, with the intention to review the policy every other month. 

The Jackson County Board of Education voted to begin the 2021-22 school year with an indoor mask mandate for all students and staff.  Visitors entering school buildings must wear masks regardless of vaccination status, and students on field trips must wear masks while inside a building.  Masks will not be required outdoors.

The decision to implement the mask mandate was made with health and wellness in mind after consulting with the Jackson County Health Director and Harris Regional Hospital.  Feedback from JCPS staff, students, and parents were also carefully considered.

A large part of Jackson County’s decision to make masks optional surrounded the protocols that must be followed in the event a student or teacher tests positive for COVID19. In districts where masks are required, if a student or staff tests positive, only direct contact of that positive case would need to quarantine for the required amount of time. For districts that allow masks to be optional, if a student tests positive for COVID19, the entire class will be required to quarantine. Unlike last school year, virtual learning options are no longer required, which would mean for many students, instruction will not be provided during quarantine. 

According to the NC Safe Schools Toolkit: Students who are not fully vaccinated after a close contact in a classroom or other school setting if masks were being worn appropriately and consistently by both the person with COVID-19 and the potentially exposed person do NOT need to quarantine. This is based on updated CDC guidance and studies that have shown an extremely low risk of COVID-19 transmission in classroom settings when face masks were being used appropriately by both the person with COVID-19 and the potentially exposed person, as well as multiple layers of prevention measures in place to prevent transmission in school settings. This applies to exposures in classrooms, other in-school settings, and school transportation but does not apply to exposures during extracurricular or athletic activities. This exception does not apply to teachers, staff, or other adults in the indoor classroom setting.

The district will collect COVID data from the schools and work collaboratively with the Jackson County Health Director to monitor community spread.  The data will be provided to the Board of Education to inform future decisions.

The Board of Education will consider current metrics and review the mask mandate during their scheduled meetings on September 28, November 23, January 25, and March 22.

Both Macon County and Jackson County Schools athletic programs will continue to follow current NCHSAA guidelines.  However, after July 30, the requirement for athletes to wear masks during indoor activities will become a local option. 

“I am grateful for the careful consideration and commitment to student and staff wellness by our Board of Education members as we navigate a safe, full-week return to school amid the pandemic,” Superintendent Dr. Dana Ayers said.

The North Carolina Coronavirus Task Force is set to address the public during a press briefing on Thursday, and base on the updated CDC mask guidelines recommending mask usage indoors regardless of vaccination status, the state may reverse its decision regarding masks being optional this school year. 

School districts across the state have already announced policies, with a mix of districts requiring masks and allowing them to be optional. 

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