The Orange County School Board has voted not to issue mandatory vaccinations for athletes, band members and other participants in extracurricular activities for the upcoming academic year.

Instead, there will be twice-a-week testing for non-vaccinated students and staff. It was among several measures implemented during an emergency meeting, which was scheduled on Friday.

The final vote came after discussion, where several board members expressed reservations issuing a mandate before it received approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

“I wouldn’t want to unnecessarily create ill will in our community,” said board member Carrie Doyle. “I would rather not mandate it for students.”

Under Agenda item B6, “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 (at least first dose).”

School Board Chairwoman Hillary McKenzie said she didn’t feel comfortable voting for a vaccine mandate under an emergency use authorization.

“Once its approved fully by the FDA, I am comfortable supporting the (superintendent’s) recommendation,” McKenzie said. “But right now, I would prefer to wait for that.”

Superintendent Dr. Monique Felder, who supported the measure, opened the meeting and explained why she introduced it.

“I cannot and will not make any recommendation other than what our medical and health care professionals stated,” Felder said. “They stated the absolute safest way to return to in-person learning and extracurricular activities.”

In the hours leading up to the meeting, there were protesters outside the Orange County Courthouse who angrily denounced a vaccine mandate. They lined South Churton Street with signs reading “My body, my choice” and “Freedom, not Voice.” Since the emergency meeting was announced on Friday, it was a hot-button topic on social media and at Orange High’s football scrimmage against Riverside.

The school system has already mandated face coverings for all students and staff members.

After Felder’s opening statement, Dr. Danny Benjamin of Duke University School of Medicine and Dr. David Weber, Professor Pediatrics from the UNC School of Medicine, explained their positions supporting vaccines.

“We can’t use our secondary mitigation strategy, which is masks, in some sports,” Weber said. “So we need to use vaccines as the best mitigation strategy. Obviously, you can use social distancing in many contact sports. I think mandating vaccination for participation is the best way for protecting both the student, protecting their families and other staff members in the school system.”

The board did approve a list of other measures, which included:

–B1: All OCS employees shall be tested for COVID-19 regardless of vaccination status following procedures established by the NC Department of Health and Human Services contracted vendor.  Exceptions would apply for employees who have been diagnosed positive for COVID-19 within the previous 90 days.

–B2: All OCS employees shall report vaccination status to the school district Human Capital (Resources) Department. 

–B3: All unvaccinated OCS employees must be available for weekly COVID-19 testing from the contracted state vendor.  

–B5: Unless informed otherwise, in the event of a school closure for students, all employees shall be expected to report to their assigned location or take approved leave.   (This provision does not apply to contracted employees or substitutes unless directed to report based on needs of the school or district.)   

The school board meeting coincided with the opening day of the fall sports season.

On the other side of the state, two football games were postponed because of COVID-19 precautions. Morganton Freedom High’s game against Crest in Sheby was postponed because of COVID concerns. Last spring, Freedom was forced to cancel a game against North Caldwell because of the coronavirus.

Also, Brevard’s game at Pisgah was called off. The Hendersonville Times-News reports the Brevard Health Department currently has the Blue Devils’ program on pause, leaving them unable to practice.

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