Moore County Schools’ administrators recommend the school board continue the district’s face covering mandate for students and staff until at least November, even though the incidence of recorded COVID-19 cases in the schools has come down over the last two weeks.
In a letter to the district last week, Moore County Health Director Robert Wittman said that any relaxation on masking in schools will be driven by community-wide trends. Overall, there is still a high level of community COVID-19 transmission in Moore County as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Wittman said.
The health department won’t recommend a transition to optional masking or reduced quarantine periods until Moore County’s community transmission rate falls within the “low” or “moderate category” with new cases remaining under 50 per 100,000 residents and a positive test rate of less than 8 percent over a seven-day period.
Superintendent Bob Grimesey told the board during its work session on Monday that his contacts with the ABC Science Collaborative, a Duke University-based research group that has supported schools as they’ve decided on COVID-19 protocols over the last year, concur.
“They both said that they anticipated that December or January would be the earliest point” where transmission numbers fall, Grimesey said. Administrators are starting to consider where the district’s trends will need to fall before they’ll consider recommending a mask-optional policy.
“We want to look at the relationship in the number of infections, and then the subsequent weeks’ new quarantines and the impact in terms of absences related to that,” he said.
“I don’t have any specifics that I can offer in terms of targets at this point, but I just want to assure the board that the board’s interest in this is not falling on deaf ears. We’re investing time and pressing the experts that we’re reliant on for this information. We’re pressing for that kind of definition so that we can answer that question: ‘If not now, then when?’”
Moore County Schools hit a weekly peak in student COVID-19 infections the week of Sept. 13, with 127 new cases and 489 students placed under new quarantines. As of Friday, the schools had 60 active student cases and 303 students in post-exposure quarantine.
In the meantime, board member David Hensley pressed school staff for a clearer delineation of contact tracing responsibilities between the school district and health department. The schools are obligated to report positive student and staff cases and to share information in aid of the health department’s contact tracing efforts.
But some board members argue that, unless school districts have a legal mandate to contact trace, Moore County Schools should leave it to the health department. The health department is in the process of hiring additional contact tracers, using pandemic relief funding to the county.
“(The county’s) failure to properly fund the health department to do contact tracing should not then place a burden to take our teachers and our other staff away from their responsibilities to do the health department’s job when the county has $19 million specifically to fill those gaps,” said Hensley.
“We need to be prepared to vote to say we’re not going to do contact tracing.”
The Moore County Board of Education is scheduled to vote Oct. 12 on whether or not to extend its student mask mandate. For now, the state is requiring local school boards to reconsider face covering requirements on a monthly basis.
Those votes have drawn dozens of speakers to recent meetings who have expressed vehement opposition to continuing mask requirements. Last month, two attendees refused to comply with the requirement for face coverings in the district’s central office. One individual was escorted out by Moore County Schools Police and the other removed her mask at the end of the meeting, prompting an abrupt adjournment of the meeting.
The tenor of meetings in Moore County are not unique. Other school boards across the state and nation have experienced meetings at which individuals have protested usage of face masks. On Monday, the school board in nearby Harnett County voted to make face masks optional and reduced quarantine times over the objection of the local health director. With 19,600 students, that school district is slightly larger than Moore County. Most of the state’s 115 school districts still require masks.
After some discussion on Monday, the Moore County school board voted 4-3 to hold next week’s business meeting at its regular central office meeting room instead of a school auditorium or gymnasium. Seats in the boardroom have been filled to capacity over the last few months, and some school board members have wanted meetings moved to larger school venues to accommodate more people.
But board members Stacey Caldwell and Pam Thompson said that board meetings should remain at the central office at least until authorities get to the bottom of an undisclosed threat called into the school district last month.
Moore County Schools Police, the Moore County Sheriff’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation have been investigating that threat, which came last month after an individual reportedly left a threatening, after-hours voicemail on the district’s human resources message line.
Moore County Schools has not disclosed the nature of the threat and has so far declined to release the contents of that threat following a public records request by The Pilot, citing the ongoing police investigation.
“If you take a look, not only within Moore County, but just across the country, folks are irate,” Thompson said. “They’re mad, and you do not know what they’re going to do from one minute to the next. We have seen a difference in the public coming in to comment. Before, people would show up, they would comment. They were not angry. They were not mad. But now the hostility is there at the forefront.”
As a result of the threat, school officials stepped up security by adding more police officers at its Sept. 22 meeting and metal detectors that attendees had to walk through.
“We just don’t know what people’s intentions are,” Thompson said, “and just continuing to open it up to a larger venue, at this point in time I just think that we need to proceed with caution.”
Board member Robert Levy, who voted to move to a larger venue, framed continuing to meet at the district’s central office as “kowtowing to hysteria.” He said that he doesn’t believe there’s any real danger.
“The way to calm things down is to bring everyone into an auditorium, and to say — as we’ve done here, by the way, we sit here for an hour, two hours, it could be three hours. We’ve sat here for three hours, listening to people — and when we do, those people say ‘Okay I’ve had my say.’ Those people will be glad that they’ve been heard, and they will become, I believe, calmer. I think that by restricting access we just get people angrier.”
Hensley also voted in favor of an alternate location, and repeatedly downplayed the “alleged, so-called threat,” accusing other board members of “overreacting” for political gain.
Grimsey said that the recommendation of Moore County Schools Police is not solely based on the threat but also on the disruptions from attendees during the board’s September meeting. The board also dealt with a series of loud jeers from the audience at its August meeting in the Union Pines High auditorium, where Moore County Schools Police Chief Arthur Frye stepped in to admonish attendees.
“I think this goes well beyond opinions and gets into behaviors. I think that’s the key here,” said Grimesey.
“We can choose to characterize this as an effort to manage opinions or to apply a political bias, but it really comes down to people respecting the (board) Chair when the Chair makes a point of order and asks the audience and individuals to comply with simple rules. It’s a matter of individuals respecting those rules so that we can expand on the forum by which people can express their opinions.”