Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools students and staff returning for the new school year will be required to wear face masks inside all school facilities and aboard school buses but not outdoors when on school campuses, the ECPPS Board of Education agreed Monday.

The board voted 7-0 to require indoor mask-wearing for all students, teachers and staff as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19 as part of ECPPS’ school reopening plan. Like other area school districts, ECPPS will welcome back most students on Aug. 23. Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Early College will start classes a week earlier, on Aug. 16.

The ECPPS board also agreed to allow a “limited” virtual option for students in all grades who have a pressing need to learn remotely. Specific criteria for the virtual option will be set by administrative staff in consultation with school principals and teachers, interim Superintendent Eddie Ingram said.

Ingram, who officially began his duties in ECPPS on Sunday, described the district’s recommendation on mask wearing as a way to reopen schools safely during the pandemic. He said the decision will be revisited as local COVID trends change.

“We will look at the science, we’ll look at the community (COVID case) numbers and as those numbers improve, we can certainly loosen our restrictions,” he said. “Opening schools this way will maximize our chances of loosening restrictions sooner.”

ECPPS’ decision to require masks follows a survey of parents, staff and community members that Ingram said supported the move. The survey, which was conducted prior to updated guidance from state health officials last week on mask wearing in schools, received 1,783 responses, 83% of whom identified themselves as parents. Another 12.5% said they were school staff and the rest were community residents.

Responding to a question asking whether masks should be required for students and school staff in grades K-8, 61.7% said they should be. Only 38.3% said masks shouldn’t be required.

Asked if masks should be optional for vaccinated students and staff at the district’s three high schools — the state’s previous guidance on masks — only 41.2% of respondents agreed. Another 58.6% disagreed.

“A significant majority of the community is asking for face coverings” in the schools, Ingram said. “Our principals felt the same way.”

Several school principals who addressed the school board at Monday’s meeting expressed support for the decision.

“We felt masks are something that are necessary for the safety of all kids and staff members,” Central Elementary School Principal Sammy Fudge said.

Amy Fyffe, principal at the ECP Early College, said ECPPS not being able to hold in-person classes last year had “taken a toll” on both students and teachers.

“If we want our students to learn at high rates ... we have to see them everyday, physically have them present (in class) everyday,” she said. “If it means wearing masks, let’s wear masks.”

Juvanda Crutch, principal at Pasquotank County High School, said she, too, supports the decision.

“Although wearing a mask is inconvenient and sometimes difficult, I do feel that it is the best choice, thinking about the safety of all,” she said.

ECPPS’ school reopening plan also includes social distancing measures — 3 feet of space between unvaccinated students “to the fullest extent possible” and 6 feet between adults and students who are not fully vaccinated.

The district also plans to follow public health officials’ quarantine recommendations when positive COVID cases are diagnosed, including three new exceptions Ingram suggested provide more flexibility. According to Ingram, persons don’t have to quarantine after contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 if they’ve been fully vaccinated; if it’s been three months since they themselves contracted COVID and recovered from it; or if they and the person diagnosed with COVID were both wearing a face mask “appropriately and consistently.”

ECPPS staff recommended that measures implemented last year to control access to school facilities be continued in the coming year — at least until current guidance from state health officials changes. Those measures kept most volunteers out of classrooms and prevented the rental or other use of school buildings.

But ECPPS board members said they wanted administrators to develop recommendations allowing a limited number of volunteers to be able to return to the classroom and for non-school groups to be able to again rent school facilities.

Board members also indicated they want administrators to come up with recommendations for programs like band, chorus and physical education that because they sometimes require students to be unmasked, currently have to be taught outdoors.

Discussing ECPPS’ plan to offer an virtual learning option, Ingram said the district “wants kids back in school” but knows that may not work for each child’s circumstances.

“We’ve got folks out there that have legitimate reasons why they need to be virtual and we don’t want to slam the door on the public and say no,” he said.

At the same time, the district wants to ensure virtual learning remains limited so that teachers aren’t again put in the position of having to teach both in-person and remotely at the same time.

“We do want to have criteria so people won’t be willy-nilly choosing” to be in the classroom one day and learning remotely the next, Ingram said. “We can’t do that. That’s not fair.”

Ingram said school officials hope to develop criteria for students interested in a virtual learning option by the time the school year begins. He said decisions on who qualifies for the virtual learning option would be decided on a case-by-case basis. He also indicated that students who choose the virtual option would have to stick with it for at least a semester before switching to in-person classes.

ECPPS’ decision to require masks follows Gov. Roy Cooper and state health officials’ updated guidance on mask-wearing in schools last week. Cooper initially recommended mask-wearing for students and staff only at K-8 schools regardless of vaccination status. Students and staff at high schools who were vaccinated would not have to wear masks, he said.

But after a surge in COVID-19 cases, fueled largely by the Delta variant of the coronavirus and affecting mostly unvaccinated people, the governor and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services changed their recommendation. They said all students, teachers and staff, regardless of vaccination status, should wear masks at school.

Some school districts are leaving the decision on mask wearing up to parents. The Currituck Board of Education voted last week to leave student masking up to parents while the Camden County Schools appeared to be leaning in that direction, its superintendent said.

The Perquimans County Board of Education voted 4-2 Monday to recommend face masks be worn in schools but did not mandate them except on buses.

The Edenton-Chowan Board of Education was scheduled to discuss school masking at meetings Tuesday evening.