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'Your kids are going to be home very soon' | With masks optional in Union County schools, some parents are worried

While some parents are excited about their children returning to school, others worry how long it will last without mask mandates and a surging Delta variant.

MONROE, N.C. — Thousands of children will head back into classrooms across Union County Monday, but some parents fear how long that return to in-person instruction will last.

“I don’t think I’ve gone to bed one night before 12:30 AM one night this week,” said Jessica Sexton, a  parent of two elementary schoolers.

After a lengthy meeting last week of the Union County School Board, a motion that would require masks to be worn in schools by students, staff and visitors failed to garner enough support.

The current policy adopted by the board earlier this summer to make masking optional will remain in place for the first day of school.

“To say it was mindboggling was an understatement,” said Sexton, who listened to the entire meeting and thought the board was leaning toward adopting a stricter masking policy.

During the meeting, board members heard a cautionary tale presentation about the sudden rise in cases at Union Academy, a charter school in Monroe.

Within the first few days of school, Union Academy discovered dozens of positive cases among students and staff and quarantined more than 150 students.

RELATED: Union Academy COVID cases double to 30, hundreds quarantined

At the time, the school had a “masks optional” policy in place but immediately switched to a mask requirement.

Sexton said she fears she is looking into a crystal ball.

“I really don’t understand parents who are so excited about this school year and can’t wait to have a great year without masks,” she said. “You’re not going to have any year. Your kids are going to be home very soon.”

According to the latest data provided by the Union County Public Health Department, the community spread of COVID-19 in Union County is in the “red zone” or high level, prompting the health director to ask the board to require masks.

Board member Gary Sides challenged the notion that the virus is truly of significant concern.

“Why did the governor not do a mask mandate?” he questioned during the meeting.

Many of the other school districts in the Charlotte Metro area have adopted mask mandates for the start of the upcoming school year. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was among the first districts in the state to require masks for students, staff, and visitors. 

RELATED: CMS to require masks this school year

Other school districts such as Gaston County, Cabarrus County, Rowan-Salisbury, and Lincoln County recently reversed course on mask optional policies and opted to make masks a requirement instead. In each instance, the school leaders pointed to rising levels of COVID-19 in the community, and the spread of the more contagious Delta variant.

RELATED: LIST: K-12 schools in Charlotte-area districts mask, vaccine and remote learning decisions

The recent rise of the Delta variant in his community prompted a 10th grader at Marvin Ridge High School to create a petition calling for board members to require masks at school. The petition had received more than 3700 signatures by August 21st.

RELATED: Union County teen creates online petition urging school system to require masks

However, plenty of parents have spoken out in support of keeping masks optional. At a July school board meeting, the majority of parents who participated in public comment spoke out against masks.

"Kindergarteners and first graders need to see their teachers' mouths move for the simple reasons," said Casey Eich, another parent. "They need to see their facial expressions and their smiles."

RELATED: 'They're not leaving us with options' | Parents of medically fragile students face choice after 'mask optional' vote in Union County

Others, in support of masks, argued that they gave children a better chance at remaining in school in person this academic year.

Current guidelines from state and federal health officials permit a student to remain in school even after a close exposure to COVID-19 provided both parties were masked. In instances where masks were not worn, the student or staff member would have to quarantine.

Sexton and her husband both work outside of the home. She said she dreads the return to trying to juggle the demands of homeschooling her children and working from home.

“The trickle-down effect of this is going to be catastrophic to people’s jobs, people’s livelihoods, and the economy as a whole,” she said.

Within the final week leading up to the first day of school, 68 students had tested positive for COVID-19; most schools will not open until Monday.

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