As Shining Rock Classical Academy barrels toward opening day one week from now — making it one of the first schools in North Carolina to reopen — parents have just learned students will be wearing masks all day after all.
Shining Rock charter school initially planned on students wearing masks only when there was a chance of coming within six feet of others, like when changing classes. Students would get to take off their masks when working at their desks, since those are spaced six feet apart.
That’s now changed, however, following a clarification in the state’s school reopening rules.
“Some of the information we were running off has changed,” said Shining Rock Head of School Joshua Morgan. “We thought there would be more leniency and grace. We can’t do that now. They have to wear it all the time.”
Haywood County Schools, on the other hand, had interpreted the rules all along as requiring students to wear masks at all times.
“The requirement is to wear the mask, whether we like or not,” said Haywood County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte. “We have conferred with a school law firm and they understand the policy to read the same way we understand it. It says everybody. That’s the requirement. We were told it was non-negotiable.”
In fairness, however, Shining Rock wasn’t the only one led astray by contradictory language surrounding masks in the state’s reopening guidelines.
The N.C. Department of Public Instruction received numerous calls and emails asking for clarification, Shining Rock being among them.
“The guidance we were given from Raleigh was ‘use your best judgement,’” Morgan said.
To clear it up, the mask guidelines were formally reworded on Friday. The subject was also broached in a meeting of the N.C. State Board of Education Friday.
“There was a little bit of confusion,” Susan Perry, DHHS chief deputy secretary, told the State Board of Education Friday. “We’re always looking to update our frequently asked questions to make sure that our guidance is as clear as possible.”
What the mask rule says
Initially, reopening guidelines released by the state said all K-12 students must “wear face coverings when they are or may be within 6 feet of another person.”
But the very next sentence in the guidelines said masks must be worn “by all students... on buses, inside school buildings, and anywhere on school grounds, including outside.”
The clarification issued Friday struck all references to masks being worn when within six feet, thus removing the ambiguity. The requirement that masks must be worn at all times now stands on its own.
“The last sentence isn’t new. It is the fact the first sentence is gone,” Morgan said. “That changes everything.”
Rules around reopening have been a work in progress all summer, with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction developing a monstrous set of guidelines and best practices for various reopening scenarios.
The rules have been continually massaged and updated, reaching a fever pitch over the past two weeks following the final decision by Gov. Roy Cooper that allows school systems to pursue an in-person option if they choose. New clarifications have been coming down almost daily since then, including six alone on Friday.
Among them was the clarification on the mask requirement.
Shining Rock is in a unique position as one of the first public schools in the state to reopen come Aug. 5, making it a guinea pig of sorts. But it’s a challenge Morgan accepts with pride.
“We are the right size and we have the right charter mentality of experiential learning,” Morgan said. “If there is a school that can build a template that can be replicated to operate in COVID, it’s us.”
Still, contradictory language remains surrounding the state’s mask rule for students — including a reference to “breaks” from wearing a mask.
The state’s reopening guidelines recommend “building in time throughout the school day when students, teachers and staff can take short breaks from wearing cloth face coverings.” These breaks should ideally be “outside, when air circulation is increased by opening windows and when people are consistently 6 feet apart.”
This runs counter to language requiring masks to be worn at all times, even when outside.
“From a practicality standpoint, what does this mean?” Morgan wondered. “It says short breaks are allowed, but doesn’t define a short break.”
Another source of confusion is an exception for “anyone who cannot tolerate a cloth face covering due to developmental, medical or behavioral health needs.”
This subject came up during a Haywood County School Board work session last week. Believing that masks must be worn by all students at all times, some members raised concerns about special needs students with physical and mental disabilities who may not understand a mask being put on their face.
The exception solves that issue, but appears to go a step further in Morgan’s mind by also exempting students who aren’t there developmentally — i.e. younger students.
“Sometimes a 6 year old can handle wearing a mask, and sometimes they can’t,” Morgan said. “I have some Kindergarteners and first graders who will be chewing and sucking on it.”
So Morgan’s plan is to require masks at all times for students in grades 3-8, but not in grades K-2, at least not at first — citing the exemption based on students’ developmental needs. Morgan noted for some students, it will be their first time ever wearing a mask.
“We want to teach and guide them toward using a face mask,” Morgan said. “It may be that we practice wearing a mask for 30 minutes at a time, almost like a fire drill.”
Other exceptions in the state’s mask requirements include:
• When eating or drinking.
• When engaged in strenuous physical activity, like P.E., as long as students remain six feet apart.
When in doubt over state requirements, Morgan said he has relied on guidance from the dynamic duo of Patrick Johnson and Dr. Mark Jaben — the county health director and medical director respectively.
“If they feel comfortable with what we are doing, that’s as close to the gold standard as you can get,” Morgan said. “We’re leaps and bounds ahead of most communities in this country because of their leadership and expertise. I’ve wanted to make sure we are following their guidelines along with the state’s.”
Jaben, a huge advocate of masks, said wearing one is obviously better than not, especially in an enclosed space for prolonged periods without good air ventilation.
“But is it practical? That’s a whole different issue,” Jaben said. “It is hard to stay in a mask all day.”
Especially for kids, he recognized.
“It really becomes an issue of what parents are comfortable with and what’s practical. There are trade-offs,” Jaben said.
One benefit to students wearing masks all day is limiting the ripple effect when a positive case turns up in school. With the double-layer protocol of both masks and distancing, the other students in the class won’t be considered close contacts, and thus won’t have to be sent home for quarantining.
“The benefit is it narrows the bubble of contact tracing,” Morgan said.
Jaben said as schools reopen across the country, the real truth on kids and COVID spread will become apparent.
“There is a paucity of research and data about kids and transmissibility. The party line has been that kids don’t get infected, but we don’t really know,” Jaben said.
Opening day countdown
Morgan wasn’t too phased by having to retool Shining Rock’s mask rules at the 11th hour. Shining Rock has been planning for school reopening since the spring — before the last school year even concluded — knowing that it would have to be tweaked and revised dozens of times to square up with state regulations as they came down.
“I have had to go back and check myself over and over again,” Morgan said.
But thanks to having a solid plan early on, it was easy enough to tweak it without derailing the goal of reopening, Morgan said.
As for masks, Morgan has a box of 500 cloth masks he received from the state, so families don’t need to scramble to buy masks in the next week.
Of course, families may choose all-remote learning — something about 15 percent of Shining Rock’s student body has opted for.
“That’s the other piece of the narrative. We are not forcing our students into school. If they would rather learn remote, that is an option,” Morgan said.
Haywood County Schools has delayed offering in-person school until Sept. 21. It will begin the school year on Aug. 17 with all students under a remote learning model, and will then transition to making in-person school an option by the target date of Sept. 21 — allowing five weeks to work through the logistics.
While Shining Rock has been able to pull off in-person school, it has only one campus and 350 students, compared to Haywood County Schools with 15 campuses and 7,000 students.
“I understand why Haywood County is in the situation they are in. This is complicated,” Morgan said.
Morgan said he stands ready to share any lessons learned from reopening with Haywood County Schools as it works toward its target of offering in-person school by mid-September.