The Forsyth County Board of Education made changes to the district’s original reopening guidelines during a board meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 17, creating new mask requirements for staff and school visitors.
Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff Bearden recommended the changes to the board, speaking on the rise in cases among both students and staff in the past few weeks.
Bearden said during the meeting that, as of Tuesday night, there were about 3.5% of students and staff who were in quarantine in the district. Out of 41,296 face-to-face students and staff, that would be around 1,445 individuals.
The number of active cases reported by the school district per week has also nearly quadrupled since students first returned from fall break, with the district reaching 84 active cases last week and seeing another 38 cases in just the past two days.
“Percentage wise, that’s not necessarily an alarming number; however, it is certainly a higher percentage than we have experienced throughout the first semester,” Bearden said.
In light of the rise in cases both in the district and in the Forsyth County community, Bearden recommended two changes to the reopening guidelines to the board.
The first recommendation was to require all FCS staff members to wear a mask in the presence of students if they are unable to social distance. In the previous guidelines, only transportation and food service employees were required to wear a mask.
Bearden mentioned that if teachers are able to keep a distance from their students in the classroom, they can still remove their masks while teaching so that all of their students can hear them.
The second recommendation was that masks should be required for all visitors attending athletics and school events.
“As you know, most of our fall events are outside, and people typically could social distance if they chose to do so,” Bearden said. “I know there are examples that we’ve seen where people are choosing not to social distance, but now we’re heading into the winter season, and most activities and athletics happen indoors.”
After briefly discussing the two recommendations, the board passed them both unanimously. The mask requirements for visitors and staff members take effect immediately.
Bearden noted that he reserves the right “to come back at another time to make additional recommendations to the board for amendments if necessary.”
He said that he is planning on meeting with leaders at the Department of Public Health later this week to present data from the last four months to the department and start brainstorming any other changes or protocols FCS may need to take on.
A couple of parents gave public comments at the beginning of the board meeting on Tuesday night, asking that the board do what many parents across the district have been calling for since the beginning of the school year — for them to mandate masks for all students and staff.
One mother, Kelly Morton, said that she has been worried for her daughter in high school who decided to attend school in person so that she could continue with a pathway and then internship she is hoping will lead her to a career as a special education teacher.
She said her daughter has become overwhelmingly anxious over the course of the school year as fewer and fewer students are wearing masks as two of her family members are at risk.
“It’s causing a rift between the students who are masking and those who aren’t masking,” Morton said.
She also asked the board a question that has been on many parents’ minds, especially after Lambert and Denmark High schools closed temporarily following the rise in COVID-19 cases — how does the district determine when a school should shut down?
Bearden addressed this later in the meeting, explaining that there is no “hard number” of active cases or those in quarantine that a school must meet to be at risk of closing. Instead, he said they look at if the number of cases is interrupting instruction at the school and if they are hearing from students, staff and parents “that are genuinely now very leery about coming to school.”
The superintendent said that he did not want to go by a direct number of cases or those in quarantine to make the decision to close down a school simply because each school in the district is different.
“We have cases in our school system where we have schools with smaller populations,” Bearden said. “They may only have one or two cases, but because of the number of students that have to quarantine, percentage wise, they might have 10-12% of their kids out with only one or two cases. In talking to that principal, instruction is not being compromised, there is not a lot of angst from the community, so we see no reason to close in that particular situation.”
In the case of Lambert and Denmark, school leaders had started to hear worries from parents and staff, and both principals agreed that they needed to close for everyone’s safety. Since Lambert students have returned to school beginning on Nov. 11, cases in the school have gone down significantly, and the board hopes to see the same when Denmark students return to school after Thanksgiving break.
Bearden and the rest of the board emphasized the importance of students continuing to follow safety measures, especially going into the winter months when health experts predict COVID-19 cases will continue to rise as communities spend more time indoors.
Bearden has sent out letters to parents in recent months as well, advising that they encourage their students to follow guidelines whether or not they are at school.
“We know for a fact that there have been some social situations outside of school where a handful of students have contracted the virus who were all at the same event, and it was a non-school event,” Bearden said at the meeting. “[It’s] impossible for us to control. We can only do what we can do when they’re on school grounds.”
As the number of cases in the community also rises alongside the cases within the district’s schools, Bearden expressed frustration that community members do not seem to be following guidelines. He spoke of a night last week when he went inside of a restaurant to pick up a takeout order only to see that no one else, aside from employees, was wearing a mask.
“We’re trying, as a school system, to promote doing the right thing that health experts are recommending, but, by and large, the folks in our community are not [following these recommendations],” Bearden said.
Kristin Morrissey, vice chair of the Board of Education, suggested that the Forsyth County community needs to be more strict about following guidelines such as wearing a mask if the community hopes to get through the pandemic more quickly.
“I get that we’re all tired of it,” Morrissey said. “I think we all don’t like wearing masks, but to me, we just need to have an end goal in mind. We need to find some happy medium [between shutting down in the spring and where we are now] where we’re being sensible and using our masks and doing the right thing so that we can get through this faster.
“I don’t want to do this forever,” she continued. “I implore people, especially with the holidays coming up, to please be safe around other people.”