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School leaders mull CDC's new mask guidelines. Winston-Salem/Forsyth Schools board meeting Wednesday to discuss masks rules for 2021-22
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School leaders mull CDC's new mask guidelines. Winston-Salem/Forsyth Schools board meeting Wednesday to discuss masks rules for 2021-22

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The Biden administration’s decision to reverse course Tuesday and recommend indoor masking again in K-12 schools could influence a pending decision by Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools on masks for the coming school year.

The board of education is likely to vote Wednesday on masking guidelines for the 2021-22 school year, which begins Aug. 23. Teachers report to school on Aug. 16.

There is no state public-health or educational mandate requiring youths ages 12 to 17 to get the COVID-19 vaccine before the start of the school year and there is no vaccine for children under 12.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that all teachers, staff, students and visitors should wear masks indoors — even if they are fully vaccinated.

The CDC cited new information about the ability of the more contagious delta variant to spread among vaccinated individuals.

The specially called WS/FCS school board meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at the Education Building, 4801 Bethania Station Road. It will include a public comment period.

Schools Superintendent Tricia McManus is taking the latest CDC guidance under consideration, WS/FCS spokesman Brent Campbell said. After McManus makes her recommendation, the school board will consider it and could amend it.

Forsyth health director Joshua Swift said Tuesday he plans to speak with McManus and Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious diseases expert with Wake Forest Baptist Health, before the school board meeting.

Public Health Director Joshua Swift talks about the levels of vaccinations in Forsyth County

Also contributing advice to WS/FCS has been Dr. David Priest, an infectious disease expert with Novant Health Inc.

The Guilford County Board of Education voted 6-2 on Tuesday to approve masking recommendations there.

Masks will be required for everyone in Guilford County schools while COVID-19 tests are mandated for those who participate in school sports and other extracurricular activities in the upcoming school year.

Updated guidelines

The latest guidelines call for fully vaccinated individuals to wear masks indoors in states — particularly in the South, Midwest and West Coast — where the coronavirus is surging.

That could include North Carolina given that key COVID-19 metrics are elevated statewide.

There were 1,604 new cases reported Tuesday by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Daily cases reached a four-month high of 2,133 cases on Friday.

The statewide positive test rate exceeded 10% — at 10.4% — for the first time since Feb. 3, when 14% of tests were positive.

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Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, strongly recommended that K-8 schools wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, and unvaccinated individuals in high school wear masks indoors.

Cooper and Cohen have scheduled their latest COVID-19 update for Thursday.

NCDHSS said Tuesday, before the new CDC guidelines was released, that it has made masking decisions “based on our data, trends and CDC guidance.”

“We will evaluate any changes to CDC guidance when we receive it and anticipate providing updates later this week.”

In Forsyth, between 30% to 35% of students ages 12 to 17 have been vaccinated, according to Swift.

A local group, Community for Safe Schools, has planned a protest outside of the Education Building at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday in support of masking.

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The Forsyth Republican Party has issued its own call to action, asking people to speak at the meeting in favor of optional masking.

Rising metrics

When the 2020-21 school year ended in June, the number of daily COVID-19 cases in N.C. had declined to about 350 a day.

At that point, there was hope that some students and staff members wouldn’t have to start the new school year wearing masks indoors.

School boards in some surrounding districts, including Randolph County Schools and Salisbury-Rowan County Schools, have voted in favor of optional masking for students and staff.

Tuesday’s CDC decision represents a reversal of its July 9 recommendation that advised vaccinated middle and high school students, teachers and other educators could go without masks in K-12 indoor settings.

At that time, local public-health and school officials expressed hope that the relaxing of some COVID-19 masking restrictions could spark another round of vaccinations.

However, the officials also worried the July 9 guidance could take the COVID-19 vaccination honor system to a whole new level of accountability and create unintended consequences.

The vast majority of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths involve unvaccinated individuals.

Swift said Tuesday that Forsyth, which averaged 13 new cases daily earlier this month, is now up to 36 per day.

He said the daily count could rise to between 80 and 100 by October without an uptick in vaccinations among the 47% of residents who are not vaccinated.

“The right public health response to control these surges is to use a range of science-based approaches — community-wide indoor mask mandates, social distancing rules, scaling up test and trace, and intensifying workplace and school mitigations (including improved ventilation) — until vaccination rates increase,” said Dr. Gavin Yamey, a global health and public policy professor at Duke Global Health Institute.

“There are a huge number of vulnerable people, including children under 12 who can’t yet get vaccinated and those who are immunocompromised, and the new CDC guidance will help to protect them.”

Novant Health Inc. said in a statement that "when the CDC relaxed its guidelines for vaccinated individuals, community spread was down and the delta variant was not the dominant strain. "

"We supported their decision then, and we support their decision now with variant cases on the rise."

Novant said the CDC’s recommendation "should send a strong signal to all of our communities that the delta variant is a real threat and must be taken seriously.

"The only way we are going to get out of this pandemic and go back to living our lives without masks is for everyone to get the vaccine. We’re all ready to put the masks away."

State bill

A Republican-sponsored legislative bill focused on masks in K-12 schools reached the concurrence stage between chambers on July 13. There has been no public update.

Senate Bill 173 would give public, private and religious K-12 governing boards “the executive authority to determine the use of face coverings and any appropriate exceptions ... during the instructional day on campus.” Republicans Sens. Joyce Krawiec of Forsyth County and Deanna Ballard of Wilkes County are on the eight-member committee.

The bill would require school boards to define masking policies by Aug. 1, although at this point that deadline will need to be changed to a later date.

If no policy has been adopted by the deadline, students will not be required to wear masks. If a masking policy has been adopted by that deadline, the policy must be reconsidered for a vote each month.

The bill would allow Cooper to issue an executive order requiring face covering for individual schools “to reduce the transmission of an airborne communicable disease during a state of an emergency.”

However, the proposed legislation would not allow “a statewide face covering requirement for public or nonpublic schools.”

Given the bill restricts emergency executive authority, it is likely Cooper would choose to veto the bill if it clears the legislature.

The News & Record of Greensboro and the Associated Press contributed to this article

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