By DEUCE NIVEN
With nearly two weeks of data from high school students on Columbus County Schools’ campuses showing significant COVID-19 impacts, the Columbus County Board of Education Friday morning reversed its previous position and ordered a mask mandate for the district effective Monday, Aug. 23.
That mandate takes effect on the first day of the new school year for students in grades Pre-K through 8. Board members heard from some parents in favor of the change, and from Supt. Dr. Deanne Meadows who recommended the mandate during the board’s emergency meeting held in Whiteville, its audio streamed on the district’s website.
On a motion from Ronnie Strickland, second by Randy Coleman, the board gave unanimous approval to the recommendation from Meadows to:
- Require all students, staff and visitors on any Columbus County Schools’ property to wear a mask in all indoor areas
- To require all students and staff to wear a mask on any school district transportation, including school buses
- Not to require mask wearing in outdoor settings, during active eating, while alone in an indoor space or with a social distance of at least six feet with approval from the teacher
- To strongly encourage mask wearing outdoors if social distance cannot be maintained
- For school staff to follow the same sanitization protocols as last school year, with regular hand washing, deep cleaning of the schools, and maintaining three feet distance between people.
Meadows said her recommendations were supported by every school principal in the county, and most staff members.
Board members noted, but did not name, one principal who before high school students began their year opposed a mask mandate, and was not asking for one.
High school lessons
“Mask wearing will help us to limit the number of kids having to quarantine,” Meadows said.
Students in the three county high schools either with positive COVID-19 tests, or quarantined due to close contact with those confirmed with the virus, lost more than 12,000 instructional hours of class time.
South Columbus High had the worst experience with COVID-19 cases of the three county high schools, Meadow said, with 35 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 36 students in quarantines. It was noteworthy, Meadows said, that only 24 percent of SCHS students were masked during one observation.
By comparison, East Columbus High recorded three COVID cases, five student quarantines, with 70 percent of students masked during one observation.
“I’m not suggesting that mask wearing is keeping transmission down at school,” Meadows said. “We have not connected student-to-student transmission.
“I feel like if students make a choice to wear a mask at school, that out of school they are also making a choice.”
Strickland, whose motion at a board meeting earlier this month for a mask mandate died for lack of a second, said poor choices by some are putting others at risk and forced the need to require face coverings.
“At the West Columbus bash pre-season scrimmage I saw two people who were supposed to be quarantined, in stands, with no mask,” Strickland said. “In a grocery store I saw a person I knew tested positive within the past 10 days, in the grocery store with no mask on.
“If you don’t believe COVID’s real, I’ll take you to any hospital within a 100 mile radius and I’ll take you to the COVID ward.
“We’ve got to follow the recommendations. We as a county are not doing it.”
“This is no joke,” board chair Worley Edwards said. “This is life, it might be life that we have to put up for a while. “Hopefully this is something we can do, and do our part.”