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At Mask-Optional Mooresville High, Uncovered Faces Abound Despite Delta Variant

Ann Doss Helms / WFAE
Classes at Mooresville High had a mix of masked and unmasked students Wednesday.

Mooresville is the first school district in the Charlotte area to bring students back with a mask optional policy, with students returning to classrooms Monday.

Credit Ann Doss Helms
Emma Boling outside Mooresville High School as the third day of classes began.

  Emma Boling walked up for the third day of her senior year unmasked. She’s had one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and says she worries about being exposed to the delta variant. She says there's been no bullying over whether to wear masks, but she felt the peer pressure anyway.

"I went in the first day wearing a mask. I was trying to gauge how many people were wearing masks," she said. "I go into advisory, only like five people are wearing masks, so I was like, ‘Screw it, I’m going to get COVID anyway,’ and then just took it off."

Normal Atmosphere Vs. Quarantine Protection

It’s a dilemma that’s likely to play out on a much bigger scale the week of Aug. 23, when most North Carolina school districts start classes. Everyone wants a normal, pre-pandemic school experience. But masks can limit the spread of the highly contagious variant and the need to quarantine unvaccinated staff and students when cases crop up.

Mooresville’s seven schools, located about 25 miles north of Charlotte in Iredell County, opened early because the district has an exemption from North Carolina’s school calendar law. On Day 2, someone tested positive at Rocky River Elementary School and the district sent 14 people from that classroom home.

That hadn’t happened at the high school, at least by the start of Day 3.

Credit Ann Doss Helms
Mooresville High math teacher Erin Trahan.

Math teacher Erin Trahan said her students are happy to be back, and the “mask or no mask” question hasn’t created problems.

"I have students who wear masks, I have students who don’t," she said, "and there has been zero conversation about it. I have been very pleased with that. No tensions whatsoever."

Trahan, who is fully vaccinated, says she never made a conscious decision to stay unmasked but found herself doing so from the first day of school.

"Like, I don’t know where the day went. And I actually meant to really think about wearing my mask, and it really just kind of got away from me," she said.

Experts Urge Masking

Federal, state and local health officials have urged schools to require masks for everyone as the best way to ensure that safe in-person instruction continues.

Credit Ann Doss Helms
Masked and unmasked students walk the hall of Mooresville High School.

North Carolina’s largest districts, including Wake, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Guilford, have followed that advice. Mooresville, like most of the districts surrounding Mecklenburg County, is leaving it up to the individuals to decide. (See the North Carolina School Boards Association's running tally of mask decisions here.)

On Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper repeated his call for the mask-optional districts to reconsider. But in a replay of last week's news conference, he stopped short of issuing a masking executive order, saying he and state health officials are focused on increasing vaccination.

South Carolina lawmakers, on the other hand, have forbidden school districts to require masks.

Union Academy Logs More COVID-19 Cases

Union Academy, a charter school in Monroe, started even earlier than the Mooresville district. The year-round K-12 school brought students back July 26, and let parents opt their children out of the mask mandate for any reason. Almost half the students get exemptions.

After a week, with 14 COVID-19 cases and more than 150 staff and students quarantined, the school's board clamped downand required a doctor's note for a mask exemption.

As of Wednesday, Union Academy's case count stood at 35 — three staff and 32 students. Head of School John Marshall said as of Wednesday, no one had filed a medical request for a mask exemption, but student absences were about twice the level of the previous week.

"It is hard to know the reasons," he said. "Protest over the mask requirement, fear over their child going into a school with rising COVID cases or something else."

State Alert System Could Trigger Mooresville Masks

Mooresville High School Principal Luke Brown was also unmasked as he stood outside the school Wednesday morning.

Credit Ann Doss Helms
Mooresville High School Principal Luke Brown

"I would say that 'no mask' is probably the majority at this point," he said. "But we know with the delta variant that things could change quickly, so we’re ready to pivot if we need to."

District Communication Officer Tanae McLean described some of those pivot points.

"If we have some known transmissions internally within a classroom, we may mask a classroom," she said. "If we have a cluster, which of course is five or more at a school, we may mask just one school."

And the district is watching North Carolina’s county alert system, which had Iredell and other Charlotte-area counties on yellow status Wednesday.

"If we hit that orange or red threshold, we will begin to require masks at that time of all staff and students, regardless of vaccination status," McLean said.

An update to the county alerts will be posted Thursday.

Copyright WFAE 2021.  For more go to WFAE.org

Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association and won the 2015 Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries.