Thursday, February 17, 2022

Watauga School Board Member Fenwick Defends His Vote on Masking Policy


The Rationale Behind My February Masking Vote
by Jay Fenwick, 17 Feb 2022

It’s been my honor to serve Watauga County as a member of its Board of Education for 7 years. Over the past 7 months or so there have been several passionate speeches made to the board during its monthly meeting public comment. More recently, a group of community members focused on eliminating the school mask mandate has become larger and more vocal, even at times needing to be gaveled to order by the board chair.

I have been asked by several people over the past few months to share what is happening in our meetings. Of course the meetings are open to the public, but I realize that many people will be unable to attend. The local newspaper often reports on key decisions but has certain space and word count limitations. So, I have decided to simply share some of what has been happening in recent meetings along with a fuller context.

All of these words are my sole, individual opinion based on my own personal recollection, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of other board members or the board as a whole.

There is a lot going on with these decisions, folks. Perhaps I am a pedantic professor, but I want to share a fuller context. You can skim or skip as you wish but I will endeavor to provide a thorough summary. And yes, even this long report, is still just a summary; and furthermore, this is just one issue with other issues to be reported in upcoming letters.

“I Vote No”
The NC Legislature passed a law at the end of the summer requiring local boards of education to act each month on their masking policy. A quick recap of how we got here. At its July 2021 meeting the board voted 3-2 to make masks optional in our schools (I was in the minority). Within two weeks the Delta variant had begun ravaging our local community; and, I received well over 100 emails from both sides of the issue although a large majority were in favor of masking. At its August meeting just prior to the opening of school for the year, the board voted unanimously to require mask wearing indoors. And each month from September to January we have voted unanimously to reaffirm that policy. Also during this time we have heard from an increasing number of persons during the public comment portion of our meetings, and most of these are speaking against the masking requirement.

Our February meeting was this past Monday evening, February 14th. Of course, at this moment the Omicron surge is falling fast and several governors around the country have announced ends to statewide mask mandates. In addition, the NC DHHS updated their guidance to effectively end contact tracing and quarantines of any close contacts on Feb 21. With these shifts in the news there was great anticipation for an elimination of our school mask mandate from the about two dozen attendees. After the usual thorough Covid update from Superintendent Scott Elliott, a motion was made and seconded to end our mask mandate policy on Monday Feb 21. 

In the board’s discussion of this motion, I announced that I would vote no and provided my reasons. Likewise, other board members provided justifications for their votes. The motion ultimately did not pass. Satisfying our legal obligation to act on our current policy, the board then discussed a number of options of metric levels and/or dates that might be appropriate for a change. Ultimately we decided, wisely in my opinion, to let changing local conditions dictate our next action and not some a priori date on the calendar. We ensured that the board could legally meet in an “emergency meeting” at any time.

Expectedly, I was swamped with dozens of emails expressing displeasure with my vote (and a few thankful emails). In response I tried to provide insight to the root of my decision making. Below is reproduced the core of my response.
Good evening,
I hear your disappointment with my vote last night. I do understand your frustration with the continued mask mandates. As a teacher at App State I also am required to wear a mask many hours each day. 

Epidemiology, communicable disease, and industrial hygiene are not my areas of expertise. I have read hundreds of articles, many sent to me by parents who spoke against the mask mandate last night. And while I feel well-informed, I am still no expert in these fields. Therefore, I choose to listen to our state’s and country’s top experts in these fields.

This is the link to the CDC’s page for Watauga County.
Our current case rate is 765, which is over 7 times the value to move out of the “high” red level. But, yesterday this rate was 936. So it is dropping very quickly.

This is the link to the NC DHHS schools toolkit.
Page 3 summarizes their recommendations and the 3rd bullet there is very clear in recommending indoor masking as long as our county is in the substantial (orange) or high (red) levels.

Locally, this is a newspaper article from last week.
Cases remain high, hospitals are crowded, and 4 people died in a week including a parent of a school family. And these numbers are also decreasing quickly.

As I said last night when casting my vote, while these metrics are falling fast they remain too high to act at this particular moment. I made sure that the board is willing and able to conduct an emergency meeting as soon as the metrics really do continue to fall to more manageable levels. I am not naive to think that we must get to 0. But 936 (last night) and 765 (today) are still too high. Not by my determination but by the determination of NC DHHS and the CDC experts.

So I hope that this letter catches you up on the public schools masking policy decision of February 14th, and in particular my personal perspective. 

Stay tuned for more background, more context, and other issues happening in our board of education meetings. Feel free to contact me directly at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jay. And J.W.