Parents within Union County are passionate about their feelings on mask wearing in school and in-person learning. The above photo was taken at a rally before a Board of Education meeting in June.

MONROE — The Union County Board of Education has voted to maintain their previous decision to keep face masks optional for the upcoming school year, which starts on Monday, Aug. 23. Masks will remain optional for students and staff. Union County Public Schools (UCPS) reports having roughly 41,000 students in the district.

The vote was taken during a virtual, emergency meeting on Wednesday evening (Aug. 18).

Assistant Superintendent Jarrod McCraw shared that in a weekly meeting with Union County Public Health Director Dennis Joyner and his staff, Wendy Neilsen (school health supervisor for UCPS and nursing supervisors that Joyner recommended following a face covering guidance in a StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit (provided by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services), which states “all schools should require children and staff in schools K-12 to wear face coverings consistently when indoors. Schools should make masks universally required … regardless of vaccination status …”

The biggest change from last school year is that if students are in close contact and all consistently wearing face coverings — should a student test positive for COVID but be asymptomatic, that student can remain in the classroom. Should a student exhibit symptoms, they will quarantine for 14 days, McCraw explained. Should a student test positive and another student in the same classroom not wear a mask, the student not wearing a mask would only be impacted.

This is to reduce the number of quarantines and students missing school. This exception was added to the Strong Schools Toolkit on July 23, according to McCraw. This exception does not apply to athletes who are competing as well as extracurricular activities even when everyone is wearing a face covering.

During the school day, close contact without face coverings would occur during lunch when students are eating.

When the Board originally voted to keep masks optional, the positivity rate in the county was less than 10%. As of Aug. 18, it is 13.2%.

McCraw said his biggest concern is that COVID numbers like the positivity rate, number of cases and hospitalizations are increasing.

“Until they stabilize, we need to do everything we can to keep students in their seats where they get the best education possible,” McCraw said. “I want to keep kids in school, but [NC DHHS] just changed [the toolkit] and I can’t ignore the fact that they give us the option to keep kids in their seat …,” McCraw said.