The Transylvania County Parent & Community Alliance is petitioning the Board of Education to hold an emergency meeting to allow the public to talk about the need for COVID-19 safety protocols.

In an email sent out Friday evening to board members, school officials and the media, the group attached a petition — including 242 signatures and comments — collected since Transylvania Public Health on Wednesday released its updated local COVID-19 data.

The group wants the public to be able to go on record on related topics, including:

1. Reinstatement of mask mandates in Transylvania County Schools in the wake of a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations locally and nationally, as well as existing and anticipated shortages of medical services and testing supplies.

2. Address plans to adopt and adapt to the December 2021 revisions to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) StrongSchools NC Public Health Toolkit requiring teachers and staff who are unvaccinated, or do not disclose vaccine status, to participate in weekly screening/testing programs.

3. Address plans to adopt and adapt to the December 2021 revisions to DHHS’ StrongSchools NC Public Health Toolkit requiring unvaccinated staff/students who were exposed or test-positive to wear a face covering for an additional five days upon return to school as outlined as mandatory in the Toolkit.

According to TPH data, the email said, the weekly average positive case rate for November (while the school mask mandate was in place) was 28 cases per week.

The weekly average positive case rate for December (while optional mask policy was in place) was 107 cases per week — an increase of almost 400%.

Since Dec. 4, 2020, statewide positive cases have dramatically increased, the email said, from 3,683 cases per day to 10,276 cases per day, according to the DHHS COVID dashboard.

Since Dec. 4, statewide hospitalizations have steadily increased from 1,264 hospitalizations to 3,008 hospitalizations as of Jan. 3, according to the DHHS COVID dashboard, North Carolina’s hospitals systems are already at or reaching patient capacity, the email said.

As an example, Duke University’s statewide hospitals are at 77% patient capacity and ICU facility has no available beds as of Jan. 4, according to the email.

The email also noted comments made on Sept. 20 of last year at a Board of Education meeting by Chair Tawny McCoy: “I do have to say that when you look at the protocols, because of the quarantining that’s required, it is making a difference on the children that can be in the classroom and I know we don’t want to go back to not having children in the classroom and that’s what’s important to me.”

In the email, the group asks, “What has changed? Cases and quarantines for students and staff are higher now than they were at that time and students are losing more in-person learning as a result. Masks are the solution for maximizing in-person learning; the case data specific to our school system shows masks keep students healthier in school. Students need a safe environment and consistent messaging from qualified healthcare providers, school systems and the community to foster stability and security. Students and school staff need to be empowered to keep themselves and their classrooms and offices safe and healthy. TCS Board of Education should defer to Transylvania Public Health, DHHS and CDC public health recommendations in order to provide a safe environment.”

As reported in Thursday’s Transylvania Times, Transylvania Public Health on Wednesday reported 252 additional cases of COVID-19 in the previous seven days and two additional deaths among county residents.Since the pandemic started, 4,729 COVID-19 cases have been reported in the county, along with 56 deaths.

New cases in the county also increased 107% in the previous seven days. Of the new cases, 32 were children up to 17 years old. Of the 32, 18 were children up to 11 years old.

In a Friday news release, DHHS urged K-12 schools to promote vaccination and boosters for students and staff and require students and staff wear masks indoors to keep students in the classroom and limit the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

The Board of Education’s next scheduled meeting is Jan. 18.

State law requires school boards to address masking at least once a month.

The Transylvania School Board has been divided on the masking issue, with Board members Ron Kiviniemi and Marty Griffin continuing to support making masks mandatory, while McCoy and Board members Courtney Domokur and Kimsey Jackson support masking be optional.

School board members were reached for comment on the proposal.

Superintendent Jeff McDaris responded instead.

“The Board of Education has been working very hard to follow the legal mandates as specified by the Governor’s Office, DHHS, our local health department, and the North Carolina General Assembly,” he said. “We continue to work hard to make all of our facilities safe and clean and provide the very best learning possible. We continue to operate under the law as we have throughout this challenging pandemic. Transylvania County Schools continues to work with health officials to monitor conditions in our schools multiple times every day, including weekends. We thank everyone for their support and diligence as we continue schooling and education in the midst of everyday challenges.”

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