As of Aug. 17, the Wilkes Board of Education still planned to start the 2021-22 academic year Monday with masks optional instead of mandatory for students, staff and visitors inside Wilkes schools.

The board unanimously took this position against the advice of Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard; Dr. Mandy Cohen, state health director; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and numerous medical and educational professional organizations.

Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious disease expert at Wake Forest Baptist Health, said earlier this month that masks will prevent schools from having to return to remote learning in 2021-22. Addressing school boards that voted to make masks optional, Ohl stated, “You’re not going to get through two to three weeks of school. It’s not going to be possible” if masks aren’t made mandatory for all.

Within the last two weeks, the Ashe and Watauga county school boards reversed themselves by voting to make masks mandatory for all in school facilities. The Alleghany County, Surry County, Elkin City and Mount Airy City school boards also voted to require masks.

Meanwhile, Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd said other strategies in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit will be utilized to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the Wilkes schools. Byrd said masks will be optional in the Wilkes schools as long as “the county threshold of positive cases for school age students stays below recommended levels.” He later said there are no certain levels in mind.

It’s noteworthy that according to the Wilkes Health Department, students not engaged in athletics or some other extra-curricular activities can avoid lengthy quarantine periods by getting vaccinated and/or wearing a mask.

A student who is exposed to or is in “close contact” with a known COVID-19 positive student doesn’t have to quarantine if both were wearing masks and the student who hadn’t tested positive yet doesn’t develop COVID-19 symptoms. Close contact is being within six feet of a person with COVID for more than 15 minutes within 24 hours. If a student who is exposed to or has “close contact” with a confirmed COVID-19 positive student has been fully vaccinated for at least two weeks, no quarantine is required unless the student develops COVID symptoms.

The most compelling reason for requiring masks in school is that the nation’s leading medical experts say it’s effective in preventing people — including children too young to be vaccinated — from becoming sick and even dying.

COVID-19 in Wilkes has returned to the peak level it reached early this winter, but it’s a more transmissible variant that makes people sicker and is more of a threat to children. The Wilkes Board of Education should approve a mask mandate before classes start rather than risk the well-being of students and staff by doing so after COVID-19 outbreaks occur in Wilkes schools.

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