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SCS Board votes to require masking in schools

There were few empty seats at the Stanly County school board meeting Tuesday night. More than 100 people, almost all without masks and several of whom wore “Unmask our Children” shirts, showed up in great anticipation for the board’s decision regarding its mask policy for the upcoming school year.

Many of the surrounding districts recently voted to make masks optional for the upcoming year.

But due to a recent surge in cases in the county — increasing at least sixfold since the beginning of July and with more than 100 new cases in the last two days and a positivity rate of 13.9 percent, the board angered most of the crowd by passing a resolution requiring all students and staff to wear masks in schools.

The vote was 6-1, with Bill Sorenson opposing it.

Face coverings will also be required on buses, but not when students are outside.

The resolution did come with a caveat: Masks will become optional once the county’s positivity rate falls below 7.9 percent during a consecutive two-week period. However, if the rate spiked up again, masks will be required.

Only 33 percent of county residents are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in the state.

“The decision is based on current data and the desire of the board to maximize the opportunities for all students to attend school and receive in-person instruction,” Stanly County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jarrod Dennis said about the resolution.

Chairman Jeff Chance said the board was initially in full support of making masks optional up until this week, when coronavirus cases increased to a point where they had to alter their decision. They met for a work session earlier Tuesday, where they debated the issue before deciding on the resolution.

The crowd expressed intense opposition to the board’s decision, repeatedly interrupting board members from speaking and at times hurling personal insults at them. Things got so intense that at least two people were asked to leave. When board members talked about how the pandemic was real and cases were increasing, several people yelled “lies.”

One of the most heated moments occurred towards the end when board member Rufus Lefler, a retired physician, tried to speak but got drowned out by several people who kept shouting.

“It’s not about you,” he said amid the clamor, his voice rising, “it’s about everybody in the community.”

“COVID is not a joke,” Lefler said, adding that the board was trying to “do the best for the whole community.”

While many board members say they personally believed masks should be optional, they acknowledged that requiring them would make it easier for students to stay in school, which is their main objective. If masks were optional and a student tested positive, the unmasked kids in close contact would have to quarantine while those with masks would not.

The school board came to the realization that the hardships of students and staff wearing masks in schools outweighs the hardships that would likely occur if students had to miss extended time while in quarantine. Unlike last year, school systems do not have the option to allow for remote learning. Members said SCS does not have the resources to handle students being away from school.

“I want my grandchildren and your children to be in school face-to-face, five days a week until we can get our numbers under control,” said Board member Glenda Gibson.

She said her granddaughter was quarantined three times last year and missed several weeks of in-person instruction. Gibson does not want that to happen again and so, even though she’s not a fan of requiring masks, she believed it was the best option to allow students to remain in school.

“This is about sustainable face-to-face education for our students,” said Board member Carla Poplin, who also recently changed her mind when it came to masks due to the rising COVID cases.

With cases increasing all across the country as a result of the highly contagious Delta variant, the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics have each recommended universal masking in schools. Gov. Roy Cooper and state health officials also encouraged school districts to require masks, regardless of vaccination status.

Stanly County Health Department Director David Jenkins recently suggested it may be “a little ill-advised” for students and staff to be going into the new school year unmasked.

Crowd speaks out in opposition 

The board tried to explain in detail its reasoning for starting the school year with masks, but the crowd was not swayed. Before the vote on the mask resolution, the board heard from several people about their concerns.

“There’s already numerous counties who’ve said they’re going to make their masks optional for next year. Why can’t we do that? Why can’t we have a choice?” Lynn Shimpock said.

Evoking the Declaration of Independence, Bryan Wright criticized the board for not “adhering to the consent of the governed” when it decided to require masks. He said he’s read many mask studies that showed they had no effect against viruses.

“For you to mandate masks is to say that our whole society cannot think for itself,” Wright said.

Holding back tears as she spoke, Ashley Eudy said wearing masks had adversely impacted her children’s overall health. She said she had to give her son Tylenol every day after school last year, which was a result of him having to wear a mask.

“If my child is considered a minor until the age of 18, I have every right to decide if a covering should be placed over his face,” Eudy said, drawing much applause. She added that covering a person’s face is “wrong and unhealthy and morally it should be sickening in our stomach.”

Many people suggested the consequences for the board members who approved the mask requirement would be felt at at the ballot box next election.

Anson County Schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are the only other local districts that have required masking for the upcoming school year.

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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