By Dave Russell
Jackson County school students will file into classrooms on Aug. 16 wearing masks. All the time. On buses and at events. Staff and everyone – including visiting sports spectators – who enters school buildings will wear masks. The vaccinated and unvaccinated.
Last week Gov. Roy Cooper held a press conference announcing decisions on face coverings would be local decisions, although it was suggested that all K-8 students and staff and unvaccinated K-12 students and staff should wear masks.
School Superintendent Dana Ayers told the Jackson County Board of Education Tuesday night she had gathered information for the discussion.
“I have been in communication this week and today with our health director with Jackson County and discussed some information she had and some recommendations,” Ayers said. “This afternoon the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that students in grades K through 12 should be masked regardless of their vaccination status.”
Ayers offered the Board of Education three options.
Option A would require masks for all students and staff in grades PreK through 12.
Option B would require masks for students and staff in PreK through 8th grade, and for unvaccinated students and staff in grades - 9-12.
Option C would mean masks would not be required, but optional in all grades.
Having students at their desks was a top priority of Ayers and the board.
“I want our students to come to school every single day,” Ayers said.
Board members agreed.
“I can tell you right now I want mine to be in class,” Wes Jamison said. “I’d love to see Option B work, but I understand we cannot be mask police all day long.”
“I think that all of us feel like we would like to keep the schools open as much as we can,” Board Chair Ali Laird-Large said. “We can’t tell who is vaccinated and who is not vaccinated, so we should just all be wearing masks. That would be the option that I would take at this time.”
“I agree with that as well,” Elizabeth Cooper said.
Trying to keep up with who is vaccinated and would not have to wear a mask would cut too much into instructional time, she said.
“I don’t see where there is any other way we can do this except to be masked,” Margaret McRae said.
The board unanimously voted for Option A and passed an amendment to include visiting indoor sports spectators in the mandate. Masks will not be required outdoors. The board voted to give administration the power to make a decision on how the policy would apply to athletes in terms of wearing masks during strenuous activities and on the bench. The issue is currently under review, the board said in a release.
The N.C. High School Athletic Association advised Tuesday that whatever rules are in place at school districts would be followed.
“If our school board decides our students need to be masked during athletic competitions and a neighboring county said theirs did not have to be, when we would travel to that away game, our kids would be wearing masks playing against students who would not be wearing masks,” Deputy Superintendent Jake Buchanan said.
No matter which option the board members selected, masks would be required on yellow and white buses at all times by drivers and riders by federal mandate.
Two masked kids would be allowed in each bus seat, Ayers said.
“Distancing is suggested by the N.C. Schools Toolkit,” Ayers said. “We have had no problem with ridership with this two-person per seat practice.”
The school system does not have a virtual school.
“We have homebound options for those students who require accommodation because of documented medical needs and exemptions,” Ayers said.