The Orange County Board of Education approved new plans to track COVID-19 infections in schools and create a threshold for reinstating mask mandates during its Monday meeting.
The board unanimously approved the changes. The decision comes after last month's vote to lift the mask mandate in district schools.
Deputy Superintendent of Operations Patrick Abele presented the plan. He said masks will remain optional in schools as long as positivity rates stay below two percent.
If more than two percent of the student population at a given school tests positive within a seven-day period, masking will be reinstated for the next school week.
However, Abele said the actual number of cases that equals two percent varies by school. For example, Orange High would need 26 positive cases, while Central Elementary would only need six. The average number across all schools is 10 positive cases.
Abele said schools will conduct weekly case assessments, examining positives from the previous weeks and alerting families to changes in masking requirements for the week by no later than 6 p.m. on Sundays.
If less than two percent of the student population tests positive following a week of masking, masking will once again become optional.
The approved plan also made note of existing exemptions — both for masking and unmasking. Abele said if mandatory masking is reinstated, students with a valid ADA accommodation or exemption will still be allowed to refrain from masking.
Similarly, while masking remains optional, students with a recognized need to continue masking will still be encouraged by staff to keep their masks on.
Abele said transmission in Orange County Schools remained low at the time of presentation. He said there were only six cases connected to in-school transmission districtwide during last week’s seven-day recording period.
“The goal is to have a metric and a standard to watch in-school transmissions, especially through spring break,” he said.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made no recommendations against spring break travel as cases continue to decline, officials worry that holiday travel periods could lead to an increase in cases.
“No matter how much I try, I’m still remembering the first week after Christmas vacation last holiday, when we had 350 cases that first week,” Abele said.
And Abele is not alone in his concerns. Board member Sarah Smylie said that while she agreed with the two percent threshold, she was worried about defining cases solely through in-school transmission, because transmission in the county could otherwise be high.
She also asked if case data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services could be incorporated into the case threshold.
“If we considered that, then we could get ahead of it faster than waiting to see all of the secondary transmission, and we could prevent some of that secondary transmission and keep kids in school,” Smylie said.
Abele said that while monitoring community spread is important, Orange County's high vaccination rate means increased case numbers across the county don’t necessarily indicate a need for schools to reinstate masking, as long as numbers within schools remain low.
He also said if new surges were to occur, the Orange County Health Department would likely reinstate a mask mandate, which would then apply to the school system.
“At the point it’s high, they will be implementing the mandate, not necessarily the schools as the trigger point,” Abele said.
Board member Bonnie Hauser said she was concerned about the recommendation’s timeframe, which lasted from March 8 through April 11. Hauser said it should be reviewed by that date.
“The way it reads now, it's like they’ll end on April 11, and I don’t want to give the public that impression,” she said.
Abele said the April 11 deadline is meant to complete a reassessment following spring break, and said he had no objections to changing the language to review the recommendation by that date. This was later incorporated into the approved motion.
“We just want to be cautious and keep our eye on the situation as folks come back from spring break,” Abele said.
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