UNION COUNTY — Is it safe to keep face masks optional for students and staff in the county’s public school system during the height of a deadly pandemic?

The Union County Board of Education voted to keep masks optional at their most recent regular meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 7); the Board voted 5-4 to keep masks optional. They voted two other times previously to keep masks optional — during an emergency meeting on Aug. 18 and a regular meeting on July 13.

In addition, the Board will retain the option to adjust quarantine rules on an as-needed basis contingent upon modifications from the toolkit with approval from the county health department.

Within the first two weeks of the traditional school calendar, approximately 12.5% of students are in quarantine. Per the school district’s website, it is the sixth largest public school system in the state with approximately 41,500 students and 5,000 staff members across 53 schools.

According to Union County Public School’s (UCPS) COVID-19 Dashboard, during the week of Aug. 30 — Sept. 3, a total of 337 students tested positive for the COVID-19 virus (113 elementary students, 91 middle school students and 133 high school students). Twenty-five staff members across elementary, middle and high schools also tested positive as well as five central office staff. During that week, 5,410 students or staff were quarantined.

By comparison, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) is roughly 3.5 times as large as UCPS, with nearly 150,000 students across 176 elementary, middle and high schools. CMS is requiring masks in their schools.

As of Aug. 28-Sept. 3, CMS reported 382 positive cases among students and 80 positive cases among staff members, per their COVID-19 Dashboard report.

N.C. Governor Roy Cooper publicly urged Union County’s school board members to reconsider their stance earlier this week.

In a statement from Cooper’s Office on Thursday (Sept. 9), he said: “Currently, 109 school districts covering more than 95% of children have mandatory masks. That is an increase from three weeks ago when only 74 school districts covering roughly 64% of children statewide were requiring masks.

“The first weeks of school have brought more COVID cases among schoolchildren, which can lead to quarantines when schools don’t have strong mask requirements in place. School districts should follow the CDC’s recommendation and require masks and keep other important safety measures in place as we continue battling the pandemic.”

Per an email from UCPS, the Board of Education will have a special called meeting at 7 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 13, via Zoom. They will meet in closed session to “receive advice from Counsel, followed by an open session meeting for a COVID-19 update.” Whether or not the closed session will include discussion about requiring masks within the school system is unclear, according to UCPS communications.

The open session portion of the meeting will be livestreamed on the Board’s YouTube page. There will be links to the meeting posted to the UCPS website and on the district’s Facebook page (@UCPSNC).