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School Board reinstates mask mandate

The Henderson County School Board voted 5-2 on Monday to reinstate the mask mandate throughout the school day for students, teachers, other staffers and visitors, saying that a precipitous rise in Covid cases and quarantines puts in-person learning at risk at its current rate of acceleration.

The board's action, effective immediately, came after the top medical leaders of Pardee UNC Health Care, Blue Ridge Health and AdventHealth begged the school leaders to do everything they can to stem the spread of the highly contagious omicron virus, which they said is overwhelming capacities and severely straining health care providers.

“It’s a difficult time within the hospital walls,” Dr. Chris Parsons, Pardee’s infectious disease chief, told the School Board. Pardee currently has 34 patients in the emergency room waiting on bed.
“We’ve had to curtail both inpatient and outpatient elective surgeries,” he said. “The large number of cases and staffing outages have put a big strain on us. We’ve had to call in contractors to fill in spots.”

When board members asked whether returning to the mask requirement might help, the health care providers said that, yes, even a small reduction in the number of patients filling the ER, hospital rooms and the intensive care units would help.

"It’s hard to make connections directly,” Parsons said. “I think in the current situation we’re in, every little thing might matter in terms of the razor thin margins we’re on right now with beds and with treatment. Whatever can be done to mitigate infections in a general sense, and that includes schools, might help hospitals manage the situation a little bit better.” Some parents, he added, have told doctors that they’re convinced they got Covid-19 from their children. 

After almost two hours of discussion the board voted to require the face coverings once again. Voting yes were board Chair Blair Craven, Robert Bridges, Stacey Caskey, Dot Case and Kathy Revis; voting no were Vice Chair Amy Lynn Holt and Jay Egolf. The vote came after schools Superintendent John Bryant warned that not taking the precaution could mean an end to in-person learning in the near term.

“If we continue to operate masks optional, we are running the great risk of not staying open for not very long at all," he said. "It is my recommendation that we move to a fully masked environment for everyone at all times for all instructional days until we see this work through. When we think about our obligation to our students, to their families, to our health care community, to our work force, to the economy and to our ability to have a safe place for our students to be present, the one thing that keeps us in that space is to do all things that can do.
“And I do believe, because we talk about it a lot, even a 1 percent difference matters," he said. "I’m not saying it will be popular. I’m not saying people will like it. I can accept that. What we have a responsibility to do is taking care of each other and the way we do that is that we keep school open for as long as it can be because for every staff member that we keep at work, for every bus driver that can drive, for every teacher that can show up, we have a greater opportunity of serving our students.”

Given the choice of shutting down schools because of widespread Covid outbreaks and imposing the inconvenient and in some regard politically unpopular mask requirement, Craven said, he opts for masks.

"If the answer is mask to try to reduce that amount of quarantining so we can keep our staff in place so we can have school open or don't do it and then all of a sudden we have 23 schools on virtual ... pre-August 2020, we wouldn't even be talking about this," Craven said.

“We have two schools that are virtual right now,” he said. “We have 1,500 kids that are at home” with the potential for twice that given the Covid numbers at Atkinson elementary and Rugby middle schools. “And even though I don’t want to mask I just don’t know how can I can justify leaving those kids at home.”