Catawba County Schools Board of Education held an emergency meeting on Tuesday to review COVID-19-related quarantines and positive test cases within the school system. After reviewing the data, the board voted to mandate masks in school buildings.
The new criteria begins Thursday.
“We’ve been in school seven days. What we are going over is the data from our health department. On the first day of school we had 214 staff and students that were quarantined,” Catawba County Schools Superintendent Matt Stover said Tuesday. “We currently have 1,505, as of 4 o’clock today.”
According to Stover, there are 803 elementary students, 181 middle school students and 521 high school students in quarantine. There are 58 staff members in quarantine. There are 126 positive cases in the students and 23 positive cases in the staff members. There are currently five staff members and one student in the hospital. There are 15,701 students enrolled in the school system, according to the Catawba County Schools COVID-19 Dashboard. That means approximately 10% of the school population is in quarantine.
Following 40 minutes of discussion, the board voted 5-2 to require all faculty, staff and students to wear face coverings while indoors. Athletes will be required to wear face coverings while indoors, unless they are actively participating in a sport. The vote reversed the decision made on Aug. 23, the first day of school, to make masks optional.
While the school data was being presented, board member Ronn Abernathy discussed directly with Stover the percentage of positive cases in students. Abernathy said that “126 is a lot and that’s unfortunate,” but the total number of positive cases is less than 1% of the entire student population.
“Mr. Abernathy, I think that the largest issue that we are running into is the number of students who are out of school currently,” Stover said. “That’s where I am running into issues with staff and students who are out 10 days at a clip.”
All board members agreed that keeping students in the classroom was the main goal.
“I would like to say that I still strongly think it should be the parents’ decision whether kids wear a mask or not, but I also want to keep the kids in school,” board member Annette Richards said. “It is obvious with quarantines, if they don’t have a mask on they will be quarantined, which is taking the kids out of school. Eventually, we are heading in the direction that we are going to have to close the schools down and go remote.”
School board members Richards and Abernathy both voted against the motion to require face coverings indoors. Board members Leslie Barnette, Jeff Taylor, Becky Brittain, Donna Lutz-Carpenter and Glenn Fulbright voted for the motion. Lutz-Carpenter and Fulbright had originally voted against mandating face coverings on Aug. 23.
Two outbursts from the audience during the meeting led school board attorney Crystal Davis to warn everyone that another outburst would result in removal from the meeting. No one was removed from the meeting.
After the meeting, angry parents gathered on the front sidewalk of the administrative building. The Newton Police Department had several officers at the meeting. Officers had to break up an argument that began outside between two parents.
All officers on the scene waited outside to escort board members to their cars. Two officers remained at the front door to prevent parents from entering the building, two officers remained at the crosswalk leading to the parking lot and the remaining officers waited in the parking lot.
The upset parents remained in front of the building for around 15 to 20 minutes before a heavy rain fell and they dispersed.
Neighboring counties require masks, too
Alexander County also voted on Tuesday to require masks for students, faculty and staff. The school mandate went into effect Wednesday. Four board members voted for the mandate, two voted against and one member was not present. Board Chairman Harry Schrum, Vice Chair Scott Bowman, David Odom and Matt Cooksey voted for the mandate. Ramie Robinson was not present, according to Alexander County Schools Director of Public Affairs Renee Meade.