Monday night, the Macon County Board of Education reversed an early decision to allow masks to be optional this semester and voted 3-2 to require face coverings for students and staff, effective immediately.
Face coverings are now required inside school facilities and school transportation. Face coverings will not be required outside, or during vigorous physical activity. The decision to reverse an earlier decision for masks to be option comes after a surge of COVID19 cases an the highest positive rate since the beginning of the pandemic.
Citing the county’s positivity rate of over 50 percent, the highest on record for Macon County since the beginning of the pandemic, Macon County Director of Public Health Kathy McGaha recommended the school system begin the school year requiring masks for students and staff on Monday night.
According to Macon County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin, if schools were to begin this week, the school system would need 27 substitute teachers just to be able to operate. Based on health department numbers, there are 11 students currently positive for COVID19, and over 100 students and staff in quarantined.
“I am worried about how we are going to keep our schools open with the quarantine rules,” said Dr. Baldwin.
“I am too,” said McGaha.
While the board’s meeting was held virtually due to public safety concerns and rising COVID19 cases, the decision to mandate masks for the start of the school year came after over an hour of public comment. Individuals emailed public comments both for and against requiring masks and Macon County Board of Education attorney John Henning Jr. read each one.
While local medical professionals such as Dr. Gus Wilde advocated for masks due to their scientifically proven effectiveness against spreading the COVID19 virus, others spoke out against masks claiming it was infringing on their personal freedoms.
McGaha, along with Macon County Department of Public Health Physician Dr. Dewhurst noted that the COVID19 Delta variant is more transmissible than prior months, causing for a sharp rise in positive COVID19 cases locally as well as a surge of hospitalizations. McGaha noted that the Delta Variant is also infecting younger individuals than ever before.
Dr. Baldwin noted that the entirety of the Franklin High School cross country team was currently quarantined due to exposure to positive COVID19 cases, as is the Nantahala Volleyball team.
Despite all 16 members of the Nantahala volleyball team being quarantined due to exposure to COVID19, and McGaha stating that had the team been wearing masks, they may not have been required to quarantine, Nantahala school board rep Melissa Evans voted against requiring masks for students, stating her 8-year-old granddaughter asked her not to.
Board of Education member Tommy Cabe cited his personal experience during his summer trip to Hawaii as being his reason to vote against requiring masks. However, once the board voted to mandate masks, Cabe placed his face covering over his nose and mouth and said he would follow the requirement.
Highlands representative Hilary Wilkes said that after speaking with parents and staff across the district and with the sharp increase in the county’s positivity rate, she would support a temporary mask mandate to keep students and staff safe.
Board member Carol Arnold noted that because she is not a medical professional, she relies on the expertise of those in charge such as McGaha and local doctors, and based on their recommendation, she supports a temporary mask mandate as well.
Macon County Board of Education Chairman Jim Breedlove said that his primary focus is to keep students in school for in-person instruction, and according to McGaha, the best way to do that is to temporarily require masks.
“More importantly than keeping teachers teaching, I want to keep teachers safe,” said McGaha. “Keeping them working is one thing, but keeping them safe is more important and that is my priority.”
Dr. Baldwin addressed some public concern regarding staff being forced to use their sick leave or vacation time in the event of a quarantine and according to the district finance director, there will be other options for staff such as “contagious leave” that can be used to prevent staff from depleting their accrued sick leave due to quarantine.
The face coverings mandate will be re-evaluated weekly and can change based on COVID19 data for Macon County.
The Macon County Board of Education will continue their August 16th Board Meeting on Monday, August 23rd at 6:00 pm.