The Harnett County Schools Board of Education voted to make mask wearing optional for students and parents starting Oct. 5.
In its latest reversal on the issue, the board approved the policy by a 3-2 vote, as some members who flipped on their decision a month ago, flipped back on Monday night, while others flipped altogether.
Don Godfrey and Vivian Bennett proved to be the only two board members who stayed true to their initial votes, voting yes (to make masks optional) and no, respectively. Board Chairman Eddie Jaggers and Joey Powell reversed their previous decision by voting yes less than a month after voting to make masks mandatory. Jason Lemons voted no after supporting the option in August.
After hearing from Assistant Superintendent Jermaine White regarding increased access to testing and declining positive COVID-19 cases and related quarantines, Jaggers made the motion to make mask wearing optional.
“Based on that information, I think we’re showing a downward trend,” Jaggers said. “We have other things in place now that we did not have before school started.”
HCS reported 162 positive cases, including 21 staff, on Monday, which is down from 227 cases (27 staff) on Friday. The HCS dashboard showed 998 quarantines (34 staff) on Sept. 13, marking a drop from the 1,402 (38 staff) on Sept. 10. White said the school system reduced the number of quarantine days from 14 to 10, and increased access to PCR testing in the coming weeks should help lower that number further. Under current protocols, schools administer rapid testing to students and immediately send them home following a positive result. Parents then must get a negative PCR test from a health care provider before the student can return. White told the board HCS is partnering with a medical services provider than guarantees PCR test results back in 24 hours.
“We want no quarantine days and that’s what we’re building towards as far as our students and staff,” said White. “Taking that extra step, with the testing and being able to do that onsite, may allow us to bring people back quicker than we have over the last year and a half. A majority of our exposures cases inside our schools are coming from lunch room exposures as well as athletics at the high school level.”
A difference between the rapid and PCR tests, White said, is parental consent. The system expected to be put in place in the coming weeks will make consent forms available electronically, cutting down the wait time for test results.
“What we’ll have the ability to do, instead of waiting three to five days for a PCR test, you can go to your personal care provider or anything like that and do the testing onsite and have those results back in 24 hours,” White said. “That’s what the guarantee the company told us. If we can have those results back in 24 hours, for example if a student is negative, we can bring them right back in the building no problem. The same thing with our staff.”
HCS received state funding that will allow it to hire dozens of new health care personnel, including additional nurses on every school campus who also should help tackle the mass quarantine issue many parents spoke out against earlier in the meeting.
“I know there is a lot of advocacy for the reduction of days as far as quarantines are concerned and we are very sensitive to that,” said White. “Right now, what we’re trying to make sure we do is have the appropriate level of staffing in each of our schools to make that happen. I really do hope that by our ability to reduce the number of days of quarantine that will allow our staff members to get back in the buildings quicker. I’m very optimistic about that part.”
Remote learning, under recently passed state legislation, returned as an option as well, something the school system couldn’t offer during the first month of classes. Superintendent Aaron Fleming cited Overhills High School as an example of a campus that came dangerously close to closing before the Labor Day holiday.
“A couple of weeks ago at [OHS] we were very concerned that we were kind of at a breaking point there and something may have to happen,” Fleming said. “We were really concerned if we were able to do remote learning or not. We know we have the option and let’s hope we don’t have to use it. I know at Overhills we were really sweating for a couple of days there. We were very concerned but now we know remote learning is an option on a school by school basis, on a classroom by classroom basis, or as a district basis.”
White said the district also wants to do a better job of reacting to positive cases and knowing whether a student has allergies or other conditions staff may need to be aware of. Too often, White said, staff sees a positive case and rushes to get the child out of the building.
“What we really have to do as a district, and I can ensure you we’ve talked about this extensively today, is look at ways and means as to not necessarily make the process such a ‘oh my gosh’ and everything is on fire,” said White. “We can handle the process better in our schools. It hasn’t been perfect but we’ve done very well with what we had.”
PCR test results typically took up to five days to get a result, leaving students and staff sitting at home. Under the upcoming program, White said a person could take a PCR test one day and be right back in should it turn up negative.
“While rapid tests do provide us an initial diagnosis, the PCR tests allows us to be able to have the confirmation to know if it’s actually a positive or negative,” said White. “What we can do now is actually test that person on Monday and have the results back as soon as 5 p.m. the next day. That’s the guarantee they’ve given us. We’re very excited about doing that.
“If their doctor provides an alternate diagnosis and gives them a note saying they can return back to school, we would permit them to come back.”
HCS reported 203 positive COVID-19 cases on Sept. 8 with 1,388 quarantines and 260 cases with 1,493 quarantines on Sept. 3.
Eliot Duke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 910-230-2038.