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School board members discuss mask requirements amid new state requirements

As done every month since first being required by the state, the Macon County Board of Education discussed the district’s policy regarding face coverings Tuesday night during their regularly scheduled meeting. After a lengthy discussion, the board voted to continue allowing masks to remain optional within school buildings, however, changes to the state toolkit will require certain students to were masks moving forward. 

Macon County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin informed members of the board that based on changes to the NC Schools Toolkit made on January 10, students who haven’t received a COVID-19 booster shot — but who have otherwise been vaccinated against the virus — will no longer need to quarantine if they are not showing symptoms. 

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the NC Schools ToolKit had previously said people exposed to the virus could avoid quarantine if both they and the person who exposed them were wearing masks at the same time, even if the exposed person was unvaccinated. The major new change will now allow vaccinated students, masked or unmasked, to also avoid quarantine.

The new toolkit also outlines a new “test to stay” program that states schools that require masks can consider options for various scenarios in which one person wasn’t wearing a mask throughout the duration of their exposure, such as during lunch. That means, if the person exposed tests negative and isn’t feeling sick, they can stay in school.

The “test to stay” program is being rolled out after data was collected during a pilot study conducted by the ABC Science Collaborative. The collaborative made up of physicians and community leaders, help inform school districts about how best to safely educate students in the pandemic.

The pilot program followed 367 students over the course of six weeks from five North Carolina school districts and one charter school. Nearly all exposures were due to a student not wearing a mask, the study concluded.

The additional changes to the school toolkit made by DHHS were done so to better align with federal guidelines for exposure and cases.  

Students who haven’t received a COVID-19 booster shot — but who have otherwise been vaccinated against the virus — won’t need to quarantine under certain conditions, according to the new advisory toolkit for schools.

However, students who test positive, although will have a shortened quarantine time, will be required to wear a mask when returning to school. 

The StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit now states:

People who are eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot but haven’t received one don’t need to quarantine from school when exposed to the virus if they are not feeling ill.

People infected with COVID-19 need to isolate for only five full days and wear a mask for five full days after that.

If a student quarantines the full 10 days, rather than returning after five, a mask will not be required. 

Dr. Baldwin said that a meeting with school principals determined that this will be monitored by the school nurse and office administration when a student who is identified as testing positive returns to school. 

Dr. Baldwin also noted that medical-grade masks, such as N-95 masks, and surgical masks are more effective at preventing COVID-19 spread and will be provided to schools for free distribution. 

The number of daily new COVID-19 cases and the percent of tests coming back positive remain at record highs across North Carolina as the omicron variant proves to spread easier, however, the side effects present milder. 

Due to the number of staff either positive or in quarantine due to COVID19, both Union Academy and Macon Middle School have reverted to virtual learning this week. While some students have tested positives and some have been placed in quarantine, the primary reason for the schools to go virtual was due to staffing issues. 

Parents spoke during the public comment period Monday night, expressing their frustration regarding the quarantine requirements, however, local school districts are required to follow the state’s guidelines. 

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