On 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 optional comes after a surge of COVID19 cases and 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.
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 the number of employees currently in quarantine. There are 11 students currently positive for COVID19 and over 100 students and staff in quarantined.
“I am worried 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 more than 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.
During the public comment period, Macon County Board of Education Chairman Jim Breedlove paused reading submissions from Macon County parents and residents to allow Congressman Madison Cawthorn to address the board via video.
“The Superintendent of Schools in your county work for you, they don’t work for the Governor, they don’t work for these bureaucrats in Raleigh,” said Rep. Cawthorn. “I am asking you please, stand up and do the hard thing. I understand it may be unpopular. I understand you may get some backlash. But surely the people in Raleigh can’t arrest all of us. They can’t shut down all the schools.”
Rep. Cawthorn claimed that the COVID19 virus is less lethal than the cold and flu and suggested he believes masks shouldn’t be used because of that.
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 more 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 the team had been wearing masks, they may not have been required to quarantine, Nantahala school board representative 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 on 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 everyone 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 recommendations, 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.”
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 its August 16th Board Meeting on Monday, August 23rd at 6 pm.
By Brittney Lofthouse, The Southern Scoop