HILLSBOROUGH — The Orange County School Board voted to approve a dramatic tightening of their COVID-19 Health & Safety Guidelines and Expectations at a special meeting on Aug. 16. The exception was the most controversial item, which would put in place that “All students, coaches, and employees who directly support athletics, cheerleading, club sports, chorus, marching band, or theater who are eligible for a vaccine must be vaccinated in order to remain eligible to participate effective September 7, 2021.”
Instead, the board replaced this item, known as item B6, with an additional day of testing for those in athletics or other after-school extracurricular activities.
All other elements of the plan passed, although some debate was had on item B4, which was the mandate for employees of OCS to be vaccinated once the vaccine is FDA-approved. One amendment was made to all elements of the plan — a requirement that these guidelines be revisited quarterly to see if local infection rates still warranted the measures.
Other elements of the new guidelines also made significant changes to daily operations in district schools: all employees (whether vaccinated or not) are required to submit to an initial round of testing, all employees must report their testing results to human resources, unvaccinated employees have to submit to weekly testing, field trips will undergo additional scrutiny, and all out-of-state travel will be suspended.
“COVID transmission is higher for extracurricular activities than classroom activities,” OCS Superintendent Monique Felder explained regarding item B6 in an email to staff. “Additionally, transmission is higher in student athletes than any other group at school.”
In a letter to the Orange County School Board, Majority Whip Sen. Jim Perry (R-Lenoir) asked the board to reconsider item B6, noting that the COVID-19 vaccine is not among the list of required immunizations in state statute and the board did not have the authority to require the shot.
“North Carolina Law sets out certain diseases against which every child must be immunized (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-152). The COVID-19 vaccine is not among them,” Perry wrote. “The Commission for Public Health, not a local board of education, is the only entity authorized by state law to mandate additional immunizations for children in this state.”
Set out in state statute, the Commission for Public Health is a rulemaking body “created with the authority and duty to adopt rules to protect and promote the public health.” The commission falls under the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and has 13 members; four elected by the North Carolina Medical Society and nine appointed by the governor.
During the meeting, the board’s legal adviser told members the measure would not violate this provision regulating which vaccinations could be mandated because the students were voluntarily choosing these activities and therefore weren’t part of required class time.
Shortly before the 5:30 p.m. meeting, a crowd gathered two blocks away in front of the Orange County Courthouse. Those present made it clear they were opposed to the proposed new guidelines, especially the vaccine mandates on student-athletes and teachers.
“I’m sure a lot of [teachers] don’t like it, but they’re being coerced. It’s like either you do this or you lose your job,” Kim, a mother of an Orange County High School student, told NSJ. “It should be a personal choice, especially with my kids. Leave my kids alone. [Kids] haven’t even really been affected.”
Brad, another parent of an OCHS student, told NSJ he didn’t believe the numbers being reported by mainstream media on those infected by COVID or about the efficacy of the vaccine.
“I know no people who have died from COVID, but I know a few people who have had complications from the vaccine,” Kim agreed. “If this passes, I’ll pull her out and do homeschool. She’ll probably learn more anyway.”
“It pisses me off,” Kristin, a mother with a middle school and two high school students, told NSJ. “That’s my choice — my choice if I vaccinate my kid. We came from Texas where they’re not mandating anything. We come here and it’s like jail.”
She said she’s concerned because her kids are new and do not know anybody, so “all they have are their sports.” But she says if the measure passes, they won’t play and would probably be homeschooled instead, adding she knows several friends who do that already.
After the protest, the Orange County School Board met to decide on the new guidelines. Superintendent Felder said after being advised by local health officials, she wanted to go with the safest option rather than what she called a “cross-your-fingers” approach.
To bolster her case, Felder had Dr. Danny Benjamin, co-chair of the ABC Collaborative and a Duke School of Medicine professor, and Dr. David Webber, who helps direct the UNC Medical Center and is a professor at the UNC School of medicine, present their views on the matter.
“Children who are not in a consistent universally masked environment can fully anticipate to get infected at schools this academic year. So how much COVID do you want?” Benjamin asked the board. “Most small districts are probably going to get away with making the decision of not vaccinating, and they probably won’t kill any children as a result of their policy,” but a larger district cannot assume they will have the same results.
Asked by board member Sarah Smylie if there were any other districts in the country, besides Hawaii, that had passed this kind of vaccine requirement on student-athletes, Benjamin said it was “under consideration in a number of school districts right now,” suggesting there were not and OCS would be the first in the contiguous United States.
Will Atherton, another board member, said he didn’t think it was totally necessary to vaccinate considering they had zero cases for basketball players in the district the previous year, during the height of COVID, and that’s an indoor, close-contact sport.
Despite the strong push by Felder and the two doctors, the board was not convinced of the need to mandate vaccination. Multiple members said they would not vote to require COVID-19 vaccines for those involved in after-school extracurricular activities and instead added the extra day of testing.