Featured photo: About 100 people protested the mask mandate outside of the Guilford County School Board building on Aug. 10. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

During a school board meeting on July 27, Guilford County Health Director Dr. Iulia Vann delivered some stark data to the board.

“The number of cases in Guilford County is definitely on the rise,” she said. “These are numbers not seen since April of this year.”

Vann noted that since the beginning of July, the number of daily cases for the county were averaging at about 80, when before, it was about 15 or 16 cases per day. The test-positivity rate had increased steadily for the past 14 consecutive days, rising to 4.5 percent. Hospitalizations at the beginning of July had been about 6. As of July 27, there were 37 people in area hospitals. And that was all two weeks ago.

As of Wednesday, there have been more than 50,000 confirmed cases in the county with the number of daily cases averaging about 160, a number close to Vann’s prediction from two weeks ago. Active cases hover at just under 2,000 and there are currently 89 hospitalizations. The test-positivity rate is now at 8.2 percent.

“Overall the metrics that we’ve been reporting on and keeping an eye on for the last year and a half are not moving in the right direction as they have been so far,” Vann said on July 27. “This is not only in Guilford County, We are not in a bubble.”

Given the alarming data, the school board voted 6-2 during that meeting to mandate masks in schools, require COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated student athletes and coaches, as well as those students who participate in high-risk activities such as chorus or marching band, and to collect vaccine status for that group as well.

The move came as a relief to many parents in the district but a vocal group opposing the measures showed up to protest outside of the school board meeting on Tuesday. By around 5:30 p.m., about 100 people had gathered outside of the school board building holding signs that read “Freedom to choose” and “Mask vaccine test mandates are child abuse.” One of the group’s leaders, Stephanie Mitchell has been reported by Triad City Beat as being the organizer of Take Back Our Schools, a conservative community group that has protested against critical race theory and amended suspension policies in the past. On Tuesday, Mitchell and others chanted into a speakerphone as the board meeting started: “We want choice!”

Protesters held signs that read “Freedom to choose” and “Mask vaccine test mandates are child abuse” outside of the Aug. 10 school board meeting. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

However, around the same time that the group was protesting outside, an emergency county commissioners meeting was being held a few blocks away. At that meeting, a decision was made by the board to institute an indoor mask mandate for the entire county starting this Friday at 5 p.m. With its move on Tuesday, Guilford County joins a growing list of cities and counties in the state that are imposing mask mandates once again including Durham County, Orange County and Boone.

‘Masking is what made the difference’

During the July 27 meeting, Republican board member Linda Welborn of District 4 pushed back on Dr. Vann and school administrators’ assertion that masks kept people safe. Welborn and Republican board member Anita Sharpe were the two “no” votes to the recommendations.

“Some parents feel it’s very unhealthy for their kids to be wearing these masks,” Welborn said. “They can be associated with the germs… They’re questioning the evidence that forces young children to be masked.”

During the presentation Vann and others repeatedly pointed to the county’s rising COVID-19 metrics driven largely by the highly contagious Delta variant, and noting a Duke University study finding that masks prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in schools. According to the study, which was published at the end of June, 1, 281,202 students at 100 school districts and 14 charter schools across the state were monitored from March to June of this year. Among the report’s findings were that “masking is adequate to prevent within-school COVID-19 transmission, with no difference between schools requiring greater than 3 feet of distance between students compared to those requiring less than 3 feet.” The report also noted that “proper masking is the most effective mitigation strategy to prevent secondary transmission in schools when COVID-19 is circulating.”

School board members listen to public comment during the Aug. 10 school board meeting. (photo by Ivan Saul Cutler/Carolina Peacemaker)

The findings come at a time when the Delta variant is tearing through communities and increasing the infection rate, not only for adults and the populations who have been vulnerable to COVID-19 in the past, but also for younger adults and children.

According to new reporting by the American Academy of Pediatrics, almost 94,000 positive cases in children were added in early August, a substantial increase since the beginning of July. As of Aug. 5, children represented 14.3 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the United States. The accumulated number of child COVID-19 cases increased 4 percent in the two weeks from July 22-Aug. 5. Locally, positive cases for the age range of 0-17 is at 11.6 percent. For those under the age of 20, the ages of 14 to 19 years old makes up about half of the cases while the rest of the age groups range from 10.1 to 13.9 percent. One of the most alarming statistics is the fact that besides the 14-19 age group, the second highest age range for positive tests for people under the age of 20 is the “under 5” category which sits at 13.9 percent. That’s concerning for many parents and healthcare professionals, because none of the COVID-19 vaccines are currently authorized for children under the age of 12.

“We do know that children under 12 can be infected with COVID-19 and they can get ill from COVID-19 and they can also transmit COVID-19,” Vann said during the July 27 meeting.

At the state level, positive cases in those 14 and under make up about 9 percent of the total cases; three children have died. And while that number may seem low, medical experts and school administrators are concerned with the current exponential growth they are seeing.

“It is hard because we had a more normal summer, things were easing up, everybody felt like, Wow it’s starting to end,” said Nora Carr, the school district’s chief of staff. “And now it’s hitting us again but our 12-year-olds aren’t protected.

“Masking is what made the difference,” Carr said about the findings of the study. “The [schools] that did really well even if community numbers are increasingly had a dramatically different rate inside schools and it was dramatically attributed to the universal masking policy and the consistency with which our educators, ad our students and staff followed it.”

Despite some parents and community members’ concerns about masking their children, Carr also noted that kids were much more resilient than those adults gave them credit for.

“The adults ended up being much more concerned about it than the kids,” Carr said. “The kids did fine, including many kids with special needs. They did just fine. They adapted; it became a part of the routine.”

School administrators said that all schools will be given clean, disposable masks so students can switch them out throughout the day. They also noted that they have encouraged teachers to hold classes, lunch and other activities outside when they can so students don’t have to wear the masks for long periods of time. The mask mandate is also meant to keep teachers and school staff safe as they reenter classrooms too, said Superintendent Sharon Contreras.

“The recommendations are our efforts to keep schools open as long as we can and to have enough staffing to transport students to school,” she said. “If staff is quarantined, if students are quarantined, we can’t keep schools open so that’s our goal with these recommendations.”

To learn more about the county mask mandate go to guilfordcountync.gov/Home/Components/News. To learn more about the school’s new policies, visit gcsnc.com.

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