Bertie Board of Education votes to make masks optional

Published 5:41 pm Friday, March 11, 2022

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WINDSOR – Masks in Bertie County Schools are now optional, joining with almost all the school districts in North Carolina now.

The decision was made by a unanimous vote of Bertie’s Board of Education at their regular meeting on Tuesday, March 8.

“They looked at data we typically present every other month,” Bertie Superintendent Dr. Otis L. Smallwood told the News Herald this week. “We looked at the case counts in the county along with the cases we have in the schools.”

With low numbers – and a total of zero cases in the schools for the past two weeks – Smallwood said the board thought it was a good time to change the required mandate to optional.

“We’re still going to be safe. We’re still taking precautions,” Dr. Smallwood said. “If counts go back up or the cases get high, they’ll evaluate it each month.”

The NC General Assembly passed a bill (SB 654) last August which requires every school district to consider their mask policy each month during the 2021-22 school year and to make modifications if necessary.

Currently, the only other school district in the Roanoke-Chowan area with an optional mask policy is Gates County Schools. Their Board of Education voted unanimously at their Feb. 7 meeting to change their policy to optional.

That decision came with the stipulation that school metrics for COVID cases/quarantines must remain at five percent or under for students and staff. If numbers exceed five percent at a school, that school will return to mandatory masks for seven consecutive school days.

Meanwhile, masks remain required at Hertford County Public Schools and Northampton County Public Schools.

Hertford County’s Board of Education voted to continue their mask mandate at their Feb. 28 meeting, and Northampton did the same earlier in the month on Feb. 14. Both districts will consider the matter again at their upcoming board meetings.

As of Friday, March 11, only five of North Carolina’s 115 school districts still have mask mandates in place. In addition to Hertford and Northampton, the other three districts are Durham Public Schools, Weldon City Schools, and Warren County Schools.

In mid-February, Gov. Roy Cooper began encouraging schools and local governments to end their mask mandates, a decision based on case metrics and the widespread availability of vaccines.

“We are taking a positive step on mask requirements to help us move safely toward a more normal day to day life. It’s time to focus on getting our children a good education and improving our schools, no matter how you feel about masks,” Cooper said in a press release.

The General Assembly approved SB 173 around the same time. That bill would repeal the monthly requirement for districts to vote on mask policies each month and would allow parents to be the ones to make the decision about masking their children. Cooper vetoed that bill, noting that districts across the state were already lifting mask mandates.

“Passing laws for political purposes that encourage people to pick and choose which health rules they want to follow is dangerous and could tie the hands of public health officials in the future,” he stated in his veto message.

The State Senate attempted a veto override earlier this week, but did not garner enough votes to be successful.