HAMLET — Students and staff in Richmond County’s schools won’t be forced to wear masks anymore.
The Richmond County Board of Education voted Tuesday to make facial masks optional in buildings and on buses.
The recommendation was made by Superintendent Jeff Maples, following a COVID update from Dr Wendy Jordan, director of Student Services.
Jordan’s presentation included both community and school data “so we could get a comprehensive picture of where we are moving forward, headed into springtime.”
“We came back from Christmas and it was a bear for staff and student cases,” Jordan said, referencing COVID statistics from January. “There were many days we had …21 staff members out across the district.”
Student cases peaked at 116, with days where there were 500 or more pupils out of school.
According to statistics from the Richmond County Health Department, there were 3,700 positive cases and 19 COVID-related deaths during the first month of 2022.
Fast-forwarding to February, Jordan said the numbers were much lower and began to dwindle in the latter part of the month. There were no school-related cases reported Tuesday on the Richmond County Schools COVID Tracker.
The county’s positivity rate peaked at 36% on Jan. 24 and had dropped to 6% on Monday, according to the Health Department.
“That was very encouraging to see,” Jordan said.
The updated schools toolkit from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services eliminated contact tracing and quarantining after exposure unless symptomatic or testing positive.
“And that applied to all students, regardless of their setting, regardless of their vaccination status,” Jordan said.
She also cited the CDC’s decision to not enforce masking on buses or vans operated by public or private school systems, which became effective Feb. 25.
Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Richmond was one of 17 school districts in the state that still required masks. The other 99 had already made masks optional.
Although a document from the N.C. School Boards Association had not been updated to reflect Richmond County’s change by 10:45 p.m., there was an update for one district.
Edgecombe County Schools voted Tuesday to make masks optional in buildings, but still require them for transportation, according to the document.
Neighboring Anson and Scotland counties and 13 others still require masks, the document shows.
Richmond County’s new policy goes into effect Thursday, March 3.
On Feb. 17, the General Assembly passed the Free the Smiles Act, which would give parents the right to have their students opt out of mask mandates.
During a press conference on the same day the bill passed, Gov. Roy Cooper and Health and Human Services Secretary Kody Kinsley said that if conditions continued to improve by March 7, schools could have local discretion toward masking restrictions.
However, Cooper last week vetoed the Free the Smiles Act, saying the law he signed last year allowing local decision making was “still the right course.”
“Passing laws for political purposes that encourage people to pick and choose which health rules they want to follow is dangerous and could tie the hands of public health officials in the future,” Cooper said.
House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, on Friday vowed to override the veto, the Carolina Journal reported.