WILMINGTON — The Wilmington City Schools (WCS) Board of Education unanimously voted Monday to extend the district’s mask requirement through winter break.
The existing mask mandate that went into effect Aug. 25 was revisited Monday prior to this Friday, which is the end of the district’s first grading quarter. The August decision to require that masks be worn by all staff and students preK through 12 was limited to the first quarter.
WCS Superintendent Mindy McCarty-Stewart recommended to the school board Monday that the mask requirement be extended. The extended mandate will be reviewed at the end of the second quarter.
During public participation at Monday’s special board session, two people spoke against the extension. And while no one from the public spoke in favor at the meeting, WCS Board of Education President Marty Beaugard Sr. said he had received several emails in support.
For a lot of students it is easier to wear masks when the masks are required, which largely takes peer pressure out of the picture, said McCarty-Stewart.
Since the most recent board meeting two weeks ago, new confirmed cases of COVID-19 among WCS students went up a little bit even though the county rate went down, the superintendent said. During those two weeks, there were 26 new student cases including 15 last week.
The daily student attendance rate for the first seven weeks of school hit a one-day low of 81.9 percent. The attendance rate is significantly lower than a normal year, and often it doesn’t align to numbers in terms of student quarantines or isolations, McCarty-Stewart added.
A mask requirement results in fewer students getting placed in quarantine, she said.
McCarty-Stewart said she’s also concerned about transmission that occurs in a student’s household and the health impact on parents, guardians and caregivers. In the district, there are a lot of grandparents who are the primary caregivers for students and it becomes pretty problematic when they’re sick and trying to care for children, she said.
Since the start of the school year, there have been a total of 25 staffers who have tested positive for COVID, three of those in the past two weeks.
There is a 10-day isolation period for staff who test positive, with 17 of the 25 able to return after the 10 days. However, the remaining eight were out more than the 10 days, and two of those were not able to return until after more than 35 days passed.
Teachers are on the front lines and taking risks, and in talking to WCS staff they feel much more comfortable in classrooms where students are wearing facial coverings, said McCarty-Stewart.
The superintendent’s report also noted most students are not vaccinated, many of them not eligible.
A member of the public, Chad Taylor, said the big thing for him comes down to the parents’ choice. He noted none of the other three public school districts in Clinton County has a mask mandate.
“When do we stop living in fear, and have the courage to do what’s right for our kids?” asked Taylor.
Resident Eric Cole said Clinton County statistics show children under 19 are not at risk for a serious case of COVID.
Cole said people are following the guidance of state government agencies that for the past 18 months “have made bad decision after bad decision after bad decision” concerning COVID public policy protocols “that have crippled our state educationally, economically, and otherwise.”
Similarly, he doesn’t understand why folks let the state “have such an overwhelming influence on us regarding this issue.”
McCarty-Stewart’s report at the board meeting included statements from the two co-presidents of the Wilmington Education Association (WEA) and from the Clinton County health commissioner.
The statement from the WEA teachers union says, in part, “WEA supports the [August] decision made by the Wilmington City Schools on wearing masks for all Wilmington City School employees and for all students to assist in slowing the spread of COVID infections and should remain a key tool for avoiding further, unnecessary learning disruptions.”
The statement from Clinton County Health Commissioner Pam Walker-Bauer thanked the staff, students and families of Wilmington City Schools for “all the prevention efforts, especially for wearing masks while at school. Wilmington is the largest district in the county and this makes a difference.”
After the board vote, McCarty-Stewart said if the state were to adjust its quarantine protocol — for example, expanding the Warren County quarantine alternative pilot program to the entire state — the WCS board could reconvene prior to the end of the extended mask mandate and explore its options.
School board member Larry Roberts II said he doesn’t like masks, “but if you need it you need it.”
Board member Michael Flanigan said he’s “not real fond of the masks just because I don’t think they’re used properly, but at the end of the day” he wants to keep kids in school and wants as few quarantines as possible.
Board member Carrie Zeigler said, “I’ve only been on the board since last October and I’m just surprised on the amount of time we spend on masks and on athletics and on things that have nothing to do with academics. I’m concerned as a parent, and just representing the kids in our district and the gap in instruction that they’ve had since COVID hit.
“Many of our kids, even though we had home school or the hybrid, they weren’t monitored at home by parents or have families that support them,” she continued. “So my biggest concern is the academics. And if I have to put my child in a mask every day to make sure that she’s getting back on track — because I feel like she has a gap as well and lives in a supportive home — then she’s going to wear a mask. But I think academics is our top priority. If that means to wear masks, then they wear masks.”
Reach Gary Huffenberger at 937-556-5768.