Cary, NC — Wake County schools have shifted from voluntary COVID-19 testing on campus to provide families with at-home kits instead.
School system leaders presented the change — one of two significant ones — to the school board Tuesday, in their first presentation on COVID-19 protocols since the spring. The changes have been made administratively and were not voted on.
School board members spent most of the work session debating how to accommodate students with compromised immune systems, as they navigate schools and communities without mask mandates and with ongoing COVID-19 transmission.
But most school board members did not favor bringing back a mask mandate, which the school system hasn’t had since March 7.
Board Member Jim Martin said schools should consider them, because federal law and guidance requires schools to accommodate students with special needs, not force them into schooling at home or in isolation.
“We need to do better for the special needs (students),” Martin said.
Board Member Christine Kushner said she believed masks worked to mitigate COVID-19 transmission but lamented requiring people to wear them, they did not.
“Mask mandates don’t work because people don’t follow them,” Kushner said, adding that created an unfair situation for students with heightened health needs.
Many of those students many be in special education or receiving 504 plans for special needs.
In the spring, district officials recommended anyone concerned about the end of the mask mandate apply for home hospital — a rare and expensive way for children with disabilities to learn outside of the school setting.
Two changes in protocols
In one other major change, schools will not be required to send students to COVID-19 isolation rooms apart from the schools’ health rooms.
While the school system is not requiring masks generally, they will still be required in the instance a student is showing symptoms of COVID-19 and is in the health room. Last school year, those students were required all year long to wear masks in the COVID-19 isolation rooms, which will likely disappear across the school system to conserve staffing and space resources, Wake County Public School System spokeswoman Lisa Luten said.
The school system was using federal funds, distributed by the state Department of Health and Human Services, to cover pool testing, but that federal funding was only intended for the 2021-22 school year. The district will use another funding source for the at-home kits, spokeswoman Lisa Luten said.
Year-rounds schools have already stopped pool testing, which sampled groups of volunteers to test for COVID-19 prevalence.
Only about 5% of the students participated in the pool testing, Luten said.
Most health protocols have not changed.
Parents ask for more
The school system does not have a virtual option for students this school year, though many other districts are continuing them. The school system is planning a permanent virtual school that would begin next fall.
The lack of options is frustrating for some parents, who have circulated a petition asking the school system to institute layered COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Organized as the North Carolina Alliance for School Equity & Safety, they’re asking for air filters in classrooms, outdoor meals, and masking or remote learning during major outbreaks, among other tings.
Christina Jones, a substitute teacher and a mother of Wake County schoolchildren, has had students come into her year-round school already this year with COVID-19 symptoms. Jones wants a plan to reduce the virus’ impact on schools.
“There’s no forethought,” Jones said. She said she tells school leaders, “I need you guys to make an action plan for it. And I don’t understand why they don’t.”
Still, Jones and others’ ideas on possible masking and remote learning contrast directly with the desires of many other parents — some of whom told the school board Tuesday night that remote learning hurt children’s academic progress. It’s an observational researchers in North Carolina and nationally have made, acknowledging that some students were affected more than others.
But beyond masking and remote learning, Jones has been frustrated with air quality efforts in classrooms. A lot of schools don’t have windows that can open, she told WRAL News.
Then, she bought HEPA filters for her child’s school.
“I went back got the HEPA filters they had never changed the filter on it,” Jones said. Communication had fallen apart on whose responsibility it was to change the filters.
WRAL reporter Matt Talhelm contributed to this report.