By Eliot Duke
Dunn Daily Record
The Harnett County Schools (HCS) Board of Education stood firm on its decision to make mask wearing optional despite one of its members asking it to reconsider.
Vivian Bennett found little support from the other four BOE members during Monday morning’s work session when her plea to implement mandatory mask use for all students, faculty and staff failed to sway any minds. The board, last month, voted against a mask mandate and elected to leave the decision in the hands of parents.
“We’re getting a tremendous amount of calls from both sides of the aisle over the masks,” board member Jason Lemons said. “We still want our parents to be parents. We’re not being flippant. We’re very concerned with what is going on in our buildings, but it doesn’t outweigh the vast majority of people who have been favorable to having the parent choose.”
Jermaine White, HCS assistant superintendent of student support services, provided the board with a list of protocols the system is recommended by the state to follow without a mask mandate. Based on state guidelines, White said the biggest change concerns quarantine. If students are required to wear masks on campus, White said quarantines would not be necessary but could if the mandate is not in place.
“If you have a face mask and I have a face mask, and one of us is COVID positive, we will not be required to quarantine because we were wearing those masks consistently,” said White. “If there is a student who is not wearing a face mask and you are wearing a face mask and one of us is considered COVID positive, what will happen is there is a possibility that one or both of us would have to quarantine for the time that’s allotted.”
Had HCS elected to go with the mask mandate, White said the school system would not have to account for social distancing, limit nonessential visitors into buildings, limit field trips or host assemblies, keep students in small cohorts, designate hallway directions or keep personal items separated.
“What we are doing as a district is making sure that when we open schools next week we are following the appropriate guidelines,” White said. “We have the nursing staff in place to meet whatever it is we decide to do as a school district. If masking remains optional we are able to move forward that we have the appropriate strategies in place to make sure our students are taken care of.”
Symptomatic students inside HCS buildings will face required testing, White said, and anyone showing symptoms is asked to avoid all facilities. With classes set to start on Aug. 23, the system is taking extra sanitation precautions to get ready for the influx of students.
“One of the main things we’ve been doing above and beyond is a great deal of wiping down doorknobs, stairwell banisters, throughout the day,” HCS Deputy Superintendent W. Brooks Matthews said. “We also have electric static cleaners if there is a suspected positive case. We also have ultraviolet lights that disinfect the rooms. Our custodians are doing a lot more disinfecting with disinfectant wipes on commonly touched objects in schools.”
After listening to White’s update, school board member Jason Lemons supported his vote to keep mask use optional, feeling there is much more data available than a year ago.
“It didn’t sway my mind,” Lemons said of White’s update. “Those are recommendations. A lot of folks think that is what is going to happen every single day. There are some things we’re going to have to do. I do believe we have a much better understanding of tracking. It’s the parent’s prerogative for what that child needs. The reason they are recommendations is because the governor did not create a mandate. We can take temperatures until the cows come home and we can check symptoms, but the fact is the parents should be doing that before the kid goes to school.”
Lemons reiterated the steps already being taken by the system in preparation for opening day while also pointing out his read of the room.
“Students and teachers seem eager for a return to a sense of normalcy,” said Lemons. “I feel very good [about starting school]. We have more nurses, guidance counselors and social workers, and we’ve rearranged classrooms to get better equipped.”
Athletes playing close contact sports, White said, will not be subjected to added testing at this time.
Brookie Ferguson, HCS assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, submitted 52 pages of comments from 735 responses the school system received from a survey on mask use.