Gaston school board keeps masks optional despite 'breathtaking' spate of COVID-19 cases | WFAE 90.7 - Market News
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Gaston school board keeps masks optional despite ‘breathtaking’ spate of COVID-19 cases | WFAE 90.7

Gaston school board keeps masks optional despite 'breathtaking' spate of COVID-19 cases |  WFAE 90.7

The Gaston County school voted 4-3 on Thursday to keep masks optional in schools. The vote came despite Steve Eaton, director of public health, telling members COVID-19 cases in the province are reaching new highs.

“If you look at the daily new cases of COVID, you can see that we are currently surpassing the highest peaks of the pandemic by leaps and bounds,” he said. “The dramatic vertical acceleration in new cases every day is… I was trying to think of a word, and I think the word is probably ‘breathtaking’.”

Gaston County currently has a positivity rate of 33.4%, is rated at the highest level of community distribution and is below the state average for school-age child vaccination, Eaton said. He urged the board to return to a mask mandate.

Gaston County Schools required masks until Nov. 29. Charts presented at Thursday’s meeting showed that student quarantines, exposures and positive cases all rose in December.

In November, when students were in class for 18 days, 2,177 students were quarantined or isolated with symptoms, and 121 of them eventually tested positive for COVID-19.

In December, with 15 days of classes, 3,352 students were isolated or quarantined and 213 of them tested positive.

The district has approximately 29,000 students.

Students returned from winter break on Monday, amid a statewide rise in cases of the ommicron variant. In the first four days, just over 1,400 students have been quarantined or sent home with symptoms and 14 have tested positive.

Board members Dot Guthrie, Lee Dedmon and Robbie Lovelace voted to make masks mandatory.

“I mean, if we don’t listen to our health director, we probably need a new health director,” Dedmon said. “It’s overwhelming. We are not hurting anyone by wearing a mask. We only help our children and our teachers.”

Guthrie and Lovelace both noted the board could vote again in as little as two weeks, saying it makes sense to try masks and see how the numbers go.

Vice President Dot Cherry and members Kevin Collier, Brent Moore and Justin Davis voted to “stay on track” and let staff and students decide whether to cover their faces. They did not elaborate on their reasons.

Chairman Jeff Ramsey did not vote and Steve Hall was absent.

North Carolina health officials are urging schools to mandate masks indoors. But the decision is left to local governments and state law requires monthly votes. This week Schools in Cabarrus County switched from optional to mandatory, schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Iredell-Statesville held on to mask mandates, and Union and Lincoln counties held on to policies that were optional for masks. The one thing they all have in common is the rising number of COVID-19 cases, but elected leaders have different views on how best to deal with it.