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Eastern NC School Districts Make Tough Decision to Require Masks or Make Them Optional

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As the start of the fall semester approaches for Eastern North Carolina public schools, the districts have had to make tough decisions on whether to mandate mask wearing. In light of the recent increases in COVID-19 cases, some schools decided to require them indoors while others are taking the optional approach.

Gina Blackwood of Morehead city is the parent of a child in Carteret County schools, which has made masks optional indoors for the coming semester. She plans to have her child, who is not yet old enough to be vaccinated, wear a mask at school.

COVID-19 cases in Carteret County have increased over the last month, and with masks being optional in schools, she says it is possible her child could have to learn from home if there were a COVID-19 outbreak at her school.

“I would prefer her to be in school learning because the children learn more and do better in school than they do in the virtual learning. I can tell that by what happened with her report card and how she was doing virtual versus in school.” 

Masking in schools has been a contentious issue since the pandemic began. School districts say they are trying to find the balance between health and safety, and maintaining an environment that lets children learn at their best.

In districts where masking has been made mandatory indoors for the fall semester, like Craven County, some citizens believe the district is doing the right thing. But many disagree. Craven County schools have required masks for K-8 students, but made them optional for 9-12 grades.

At the Craven board of education meeting where the mask rules were decided, the first person to speak during public comment was Glenn Fink of New Bern. He asked the board to make masks optional.

“Wearing masks are both a distraction to the students and a barrier to communication. Students do not need any barriers to their best learning opportunities.” 

Craven County director of public relations Jennifer Wagner says that as the COVID-19 data changes in the region, the Board of Education could decide to pivot.

“We will always air on the side of safety to be able to protect our staff and students so that we are able to have a successful school year.” 

Two counties over, the Onslow County School System has made masking optional; something that Natalie Lewis, who has two children in the district, disagrees with.

“Right now is not the time to relax. And the kids can’t — especially the kids in K-8, a lot of them are not able to get vaccinated. So it makes no sense to me why you would just relax the mask protocols.” 

She says she is worried about COVID-19 spreading among families and children bringing the virus to school. But, she’s especially worried with the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.

“I’m worried for my kids and I’m worried for other people’s kids, because kids are getting this variant and they’re literally dying. Its not a joke.”

Pitt County Schools has not decided on masks yet. At their last board of education meeting, they tabled the issue until their next work session on August 16th.

In July, Pitt County board of education sent a survey to parents and staff concerning masks. They received over 9800 responses, with about 60% voting to make masks optional, and about 40% voting to require them.

Wendy Modlin, a parent of two children in Pitt County schools, says she voted for masks to be the parent’s choice.

“Our kids wash their hands, you know, our kids are cautious about covering their mouths when they cough. And I hope everyone else takes the same precautions. But that’s where we stand in our family, personally.”

Modlin says if the Pitt County board of education did decide to require masks, she is worried about what the next step might be.

“Are they going to be pushing for kids to be vaccinated in the public education environment? That’s my only concern.” 

When Blackwood’s child turns 12, she says she’ll continue to have her wear a mask even after she’s been vaccinated, because she doesn’t know when the pandemic will end.

“I just think that they’re so many people that are against wearing the mask and against getting the vaccine, that its going to make it very difficult to eradicate this virus and go back to normal life until they do that."

In other areas of Eastern North Carolina-- Duplin, Hyde, Martin and Washington County schools have required mask wearing indoors for all students and staff in the fall.

Lenoir County schools decided to require masks indoors for the first three weeks of the semester and will be revisiting the topic at their next Board of Education meeting in September.

Similarly, Wilson County schools made masks required, but plans to revisit the issue in October.

Beaufort, Johnston, Jones, Pamlico, Pender and Wayne County schools have made masks optional for the fall, along with Onslow and Carteret.

Face masks are required on buses due to federal law.