By a 3-2 vote Monday night, the Wilkes Board of Education approved continuing a mask mandate in place in schools since Aug. 31 at least through the end of November.

School board member Joan Caudill made the motion to extend the mandate a third month. Kirk Walker seconded this and Vice Chairman Sharron Huffman joined Walker and Caudill in voting for the motion.

Voting against the motion were Hardin Kennedy and Chairman Rudy Holbrook, as they did when the mandate was continued on Oct. 4. Kennedy participated in the meeting Monday by Zoom, stating that he had tested positive for COVID-19.

During the meeting, Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard recommended continuing the mask mandate for at least a month.

Willard said this was in consideration of K-6 students (children ages 5-11) not yet being eligible for COVID-19 shots. She said they will likely be eligible within a week so keeping the mandate is fair for their sake.

She also said that despite improvement in recent weeks, Wilkes County’s COVID-19 active case totals, transmission rates and positivity rates on COVID-19 tests aren’t as needed to justify not requiring masks inside Wilkes schools.

Willard noted in an interview that the positivity rate on COVID-19 tests in Wilkes increased from 5.2% on Friday to about 6.3% on Monday. Other metrics reflect an increase in prevalence of the virus locally recently.

Willard added that if the vaccination rate continues to rise in Wilkes, including with kids ages 5-11 being eligible, COVID-19 should be under control here in about six months. “It will be here forever, but we’ll be able to control it.”

Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd reported Monday night that 34 students or staff in the Wilkes schools were in quarantine on Oct. 29, with 18 of these testing positive for COVID-19 and the others considered exposed to the virus.

That’s up from 23 in quarantine and 10 active cases in the Wilkes schools a week earlier on Oct. 22. There were 67 in quarantine and 18 active cases on Oct. 15; 50 and 30 on Oct. 8; and 132 and 47 on Oct. 1. End of the week peak totals this school year were 525 in quarantine on Sept. 3 and 125 active cases on Sept. 10.

A county’s transmission rate is its new cases per 100,000 people in the prior seven days. A transmission rate under 100 per 100,000 is needed to not be a red (high transmission) county. On Monday, Wilkes was among 80 red N.C. counties.

Wilkes had a transmission rate of 131.56 per 100,000 people and a positivity rate of 6.34% on Monday, reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The generally accepted goal for positivity rate is 5%.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services recently recommended that a county have moderate or low transmission rates for at least seven days before face masks are optional for vaccinated students and staff in that county.

Moderate is 10-49 new cases and low is fewer than 10 new cases per 100,000 people in the prior seven days. DHHS said face masks should be required for all unvaccinated people until transmission rates are low.

As of Monday, Wilkes had 127 active COVID-19 cases (with eight hospitalized). Wilkes had 95 active cases and 10 hospitalized a week earlier on Oct. 25. The county had 119 active cases and 18 hospitalized on Oct. 18. Wilkes had 332 active cases and 35 hospitalized on Oct. 1.

As of Monday, 10,604 Wilkes residents had tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began and Wilkes had 182 confirmed COVID-19-related deaths.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 44%% of all Wilkes residents were fully vaccinated as of Monday. The CDC said 48% of Wilkes residents 12 or older were fully vaccinated by Monday. Statewide, 67% of all adults were fully vaccinated by then.

Kennedy said he opposes making masks mandatory in the schools because it amounts to “holding everybody hostage while hoping to get a vaccine.”

Kennedy said the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 cases in school districts statewide are coming from household contacts rather than within schools.

He said he doesn’t oppose getting vaccinated for COVID-19 but added that parents should be allowed to decide if their children wear masks in school.

Kennedy noted that Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro officials approved no longer requiring wearing masks in most businesses and other public establishments, effective Saturday.

He said that despite the mask mandate the two towns had until Saturday and in the Wilkes schools, few people have been fully covering their mouths and noses with masks in these settings. “COVID doesn’t take a back seat at lunch time or during ball games” when faces aren’t covered with masks.

Caudill asked Byrd if Allison Lambert, a school nurse at Millers Creek Elementary, could speak about school masks. Byrd said that was up to Lambert.

Lambert said supports the mask mandate because it helps prevent students and staff from being exposed to COVID-19. She said this means students and staff are out of school less due to quarantining and also because it reduces the amount of contact tracing needed.

Lambert said that from the start of this school year until about two weeks ago, she couldn’t do her normal work caring for students because of the hours she had to spend on COVID-19 contact tracing. “In the last two weeks, it (the improvement) has been amazing.”

She said that at Millers Creek, the largest elementary school in Wilkes, experiences she has had with students not complying with the mask mandate doesn’t exceed what she can count on both hands.

Lambert said that if a high school athletic team member tests positive for COVID-19, other team members almost always must be quarantined regardless of whether they were wearing masks due to physical contact.

Three parents of students in the Wilkes schools spoke in favor of continuing the mask mandate until the prevalence of COVID-19 decreases even more.

Under state legislation recently signed into law, N.C. public school boards must vote every 30 days on requirements regarding masks in schools.

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