Orange school board lifts outdoor rules on masks, fans as COVID-19 cases decline

·5 min read

Orange County high school students and staff will be able to breathe a little easier starting Wednesday, when the district lifts its outdoor mask mandate.

The Orange County school board also voted unanimously Monday to lift the 50% capacity restriction on fans at indoor and outdoor athletic events and to allow concessions and sales at outdoor events. Students involved in sporting events or other extracurricular activities will still have to be masked on the sidelines.

The district will continue to require masks and physical distancing for indoor events, as well as prohibit concessions and sales indoors. The board gave district officials the authority to adjust COVID precautions for the state volleyball playoffs over the next two weeks.

Future decisions about indoor concessions will look at having different physical distancing requirements and setting aside a separate area for fans to eat and drink without masks, said Patrick Abele, the district’s chief operating officer.

The district also will increase the amount of time middle school students can spend playing wind instruments or singing in chorus this week — from 40 minutes to 50 minutes per hour. High school students, who attend 90-minute block classes, already get 60 minutes.

Meeting goes remote after Proud Boys visit

Monday’s meeting was held remotely, following an Oct. 11 meet at A.L. Stanback Middle School at which several members of the Proud Boys hate group joined protesters against the district’s COVID-19 and LGBTQ policies. The board passed a resolution at that meeting opposing “all forms of white nationalism and white supremacy” and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The News & Observer’s could not reach board Chair Hillary Mackenzie and district spokeswoman Melany Stowe about the return to virtual meetings and how long they will continue. The district has not issued a news release updating parents.

No secondary COVID transmissions have been reported among students or staff associated with band and chorus, district officials said.

Board member Sarah Smiley, who has advocated for a slow return to pre-COVID conditions, expressed some concern Monday about the latest changes.

“I have some concern about doing it so quickly after we’ve moved to substantial (transmission risk),” Smylie said. “I’m supportive of making the move. I would just hate to then have to communicate that we’re moving backwards and cause confusion.”

Orange County is among several North Carolina counties now reporting a “substantial” risk of COVID-19 community transmission, lower than the “high” risk reported across most of the state. Chatham and Person counties also were downgraded to a substantial risk.

Board member Carrie Doyle supported the latest moves, saying the district has “handled this in a smart way.”

“We should feel really good that we haven’t had severe illness and very little illness, because we’ve been thoughtful and at the risk-averse end of the spectrum,” Doyle said. “I think this is really an appropriate time to remove outdoor masking requirements at the high school tier, and it sets us up to (have) a trial, frankly, before our younger grades have the opportunity to vaccinate.”

Falling COVID risk, child vaccinations

The district has required students to wear masks, except for a 15-minute period at lunch, since the school year began. However, the number of COVID-19 cases are falling across the county and Orange County has a nearly 80% vaccination rate among its high school students.

Orange County has reported 244 cases, or 16.4 cases for every 10,000 residents, in the last 14 days, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The county has a 1.7% positivity rate, with 75.4% of the population fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Abele noted there have been two student cases connected to athletics in the last 14 days and roughly two cases a month for high school coaches and staff.

Orange County required all teachers and staff to be vaccinated as of Sept. 23 as a condition of employment. District staff noted at the Sept. 13 board meeting that roughly 79% of the district’s teaching staff had been vaccinated, with roughly 50% or less of other district employees being vaccinated.

The N&O sent Stowe an email Tuesday asking for updated information about the number of vaccinated employees and how many had left the district rather than get vaccinated. Stowe had not responded by press time.

Superintendent Monique Felder told the board Monday that changes are being recommended in consultation with the Orange County Health Department and the ABC Science Collaborative. Additional changes may come after the holidays, said Danny Benjamin, a Duke physician and collaborative co-chair.

The federal Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve the Pfizer vaccine by next week for emergency use among children ages 5-11. Orange County Schools could offer vaccination clinics when that happens, Abele said.

That step could move many districts to a “test to stay” model without masks, Benjamin said.

The ABC Science Collaborative is exploring that option, he said, which would let students and staff exposed to COVID-19 but who are not symptomatic to take a rapid test before school and, if negative, to attend in person.

Orange County already allows students who have been vaccinated but exposed to COVID remain in person, as long as they are asymptomatic. The board could review updated COVID-19 data and consider additional steps on Nov. 8.

This is a district that if you chose to could start moving and unwinding some of the things that (have been in place) and see how things are going,” Benjamin said.

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