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CMS teachers concerned over 'mask opt-out' option

Teachers worry some families could take advantage of the option to avoid wearing a mask. The district says they can't guarantee that wouldn't happen.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There is growing concern among CMS teachers as students continue to slowly return to in-person learning because not all students will be wearing masks.

Governor Cooper required that all school staff and students from kindergarten to 12th grade wear masks inside of the school building. But under the statewide mandate, there are exceptions. Families can opt-out of wearing a mask for a medical, behavioral or developmental reason.

But some teachers say there’s too much wiggle room and not enough follow up, giving those who simply don’t want to wear a mask an easy way out.

For months, top health officials have said wearing a mask can help protect people from the coronavirus.

"Scared is definitely a good way to describe it. I'm anxious. The thought of going back to school makes me incredibly stressed and in turn, doesn't make me the teacher that I'm going to need to be for them anyway,” a CMS high school teacher told WCNC Charlotte. They wanted to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution.

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If a family says they have an exception to the mask mandate, CMS requires written documentation on file. But the district cannot require medical documentation. There is a district form that families can fill out to act as that documentation.

One of the reasons listed on that form is because “this is a new experience and the student has difficulty following directions with wearing a mask and needs additional practice or guidance.”

"We were providing an opportunity for families to consider the student hasn't ever done this before, it might be a developmental issue, it might be a need for additional skills building,” said Monica Adamian, the CMS Coordinated School Health Specialist.

But there is no further proof or documentation needed. That’s concerning for this teacher.

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"The ambiguous part of that form is what really concerns me. While I understand there might be exemptions, without any type of medical documentation, who's to say what's really an exemption versus anybody who just doesn't want to wear a mask,” they said.

The form is not given to every single family in the district, only those who verbally claim they have an exception and need some form of written documentation.

Adamian said she recognizes the importance of masks and said the district’s hope is that as many students as possible will be wearing masks and addressed the concerns some families could take advantage of the option.

"I can't say that wouldn't happen. We have to respond to the state mandate, and the way the mandate was written gives that space for families to do that,” said Adamian.

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The latest CMS data shows public health metrics have moved into the yellow and red zones. With more of the virus out in the community, some teachers feel they could be put in a dangerous situation.

"The one thing that right now we know can help us are these masks, and you're going to allow students to come back without them, I mean if that's not a slap in the face, I don't know what is,” the teacher told WCNC Charlotte.  "I live with a high-risk person. If I bring the virus home to him, I don't know that he will recover. And my district has assured me that they care about my safety, but yet again, CMS has made it very clear that they do not care about teacher's concerns or teacher's wellbeing at this point."

Adamian said teachers' safety is a top priority and they recognize the classroom is not a risk-free area.

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