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Swain will mandate masks in schools

Swain will mandate masks in schools

Swain County Schools will start the year with a mask mandate, reversing a previous decision to make masks optional for the 2021-22 school year. 

At the July 29 Swain County School Board meeting, the board had decided to make masks optional for all students, staff and visitors. In making this decision, the board made it clear that the decision was based on current conditions and was subject to change if COVID-19 transmission rates grew to dangerous levels in the community. 

According to Swain County Public Health Director Alison Cochran, that time has come.

Cochran presented the latest COVID-19 information to the school board. Swain County has 58 current, active cases. Since July 29, there has been one death due to COVID-19 and 78 new positive cases. There are eight current, active cases in people 18 years and younger. In Swain County, 43.1 percent of the population has been vaccinated. 

The board questioned Cochran about social distancing and quarantine requirements for students and staff when masks are required versus when they are not. The big takeaway is that when students are consistently masked, symptom-free students are not required to quarantine after having close contact with a COVID-positive peer. When masks are optional, students that have been within six feet of a COVID-positive peer would have to quarantine for the appropriate amount of time, or until they receive a negative COVID-19 regardless of whether they are experiencing symptoms. 

The board asked Cochran what her level of concern was. 

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“There is concern. Our cases are going up, sharply increasing. Two weeks ago, we had 18 positives, now we’re up to 58. So there is a concern. There is an overall concern with the school system going back in, everybody into the classroom, which I agree with, please don’t misunderstand me. I do agree with that,” said Cochran. “But I think we need to be cautious because there are breakthrough cases where people are vaccinated and still getting COVID or the delta variant and can transmit to the children. And when you’ve got that many in a classroom, it’s just concerning.”

According to Cochran, all the public health directors she has spoken to are strongly encouraging their school board to follow CDC and state guidelines. 

The board took Cochran’s advice. Board member Kimberly Carpenter made a motion to start the school year requiring masks indoors for all students, staff and visitors. The motion passed unanimously. 

“I think that our number one goal is to keep the students and teachers and staff well, the families in the community and to keep the students in the classrooms and in-person learning. I think that what we’ve experienced, as well as what all the child health professionals at this point know, is that in-person education is best for the children’s health. And that’s my reason for making that motion,” said Carpenter. 

The motion includes exceptions for indoor masking when students are actively participating in sports. The board also stipulated that teachers should allow for appropriate mask breaks when necessary and do their best to get students outside throughout the day. 

The board clarified that they would reassess the issue of masks as often as possible to remain in line with safety measures and the recommendations of public health officials. 

“The other concern is once last year we went to remote. We don’t have that capability right now. So if we should close schools, we close schools and all it takes is one classroom to break out in a large number, and you may end up closing school because you lose two or three or four teachers. That can affect an entire school population as far as being able to teach school,” said Board Chairman Gerald McKinney. “So I think we err on the side of caution and then we revisit it. And as soon as we feel comfortable with the reports, we’re getting, we leave it. Nobody wants to do it. Nobody. I hate wearing one, but I do.”

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