CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education met Tuesday night to discuss the district's current mask requirement for teachers and staff, and district leaders voted unanimously to make masks optional effective March 7.
Mecklenburg County Health Director Dr. Raynard Washington recommended the district lift its mask mandate, but did say he expects COVID-19 surges in the future. Washington said during the transition as Mecklenburg County lifts its mandate, parents need to be responsible for their kids' health, recommending high-risk students continue to wear masks.
"It is really important for individuals who would like to wear a mask to wear one and be comfortable to wear one and not feel any judgment as a result of it," Washington said.
The meeting came as other school districts have voted to enact mask-optional policies.
As students and staff returned to in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, CMS board leaders chose to require masks to be worn by students and staff while indoors. CMS had continued to require masks, while nearby districts like Caldwell County and Cabarrus County voted to go mask-optional.
More recently, CMS leaders chose to end the contact-tracing program it had in place since the move back to in-person instruction. However, a five-day quarantine requirement remains in place for students and staff who test positive for the virus and see symptoms decline.
At recent CMS board meetings, community members both in favor of and against a mask-optional policy have spoken up with signs and speeches. WCNC Charlotte recently spoke with a CMS student and her mother who have called for a mask-optional policy in previous meetings, saying they believe it's best to do so now and that families who wish to mask up will do so on their own accord.
At Tuesday's meeting, Winston said there would be a no-tolerance approach to students bullying other students who choose to wear a mask after the district's mask-optional policy goes into effect.
“That absolutely applies for those students and staff members who choose to or choose not to wear a mask," Winston said.
The decision to lift the mask mandate effective March 7 was in line with Superintendent Earnest Winston's recommendation.
Board members Margaret Marshall, Rhonda Cheek, and Sean Strain wanted to go mask optional on Feb. 26, the same day Mecklenburg County's indoor mask mandate ends, but a motion to do so failed.
“I don’t understand when the experts say, 'Hey in our county, what we need to do is move on the 26th,'" Strain said. "I don’t understand why we’re not moving on the 26th."
Board Member Rhonda Cheek asked Washington if there would be a risk to the community if CMS was to lift its mandate earlier than March 7.
Washington said he did not have a definitive answer at the moment.
"I do think it wise and would be very informed for the school district to make sure they have everything in place to do this before they make this transition," Washington said.
Both Strain and Cheek argued the district has had enough time to make a plan to transition to go to mask optional.
Most board members agreed they still needed to give staff and students time to transition.
“I do believe keeping it on the seventh will allow students to see in these two weeks what they feel more comfortable doing," Juan Torres Muñoz, the CMS Student Advisor, said.
The board said there may be a time to go back to mask mandatory if it was needed, but for now, that's not the case.