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Stanly County School Board keeps masks mandatory

The Stanly County School Board on Tuesday night voted to extend the district’s mask mandate for students and staff. This is the second month the board has voted to extend the mandate, which was originally passed during the August meeting right before the school year began.

Board members Glenda Gibson, Rufus Lefler, Carla Poplin and Vicky Watson voted to extend the mandate while Anthony Graves and Bill Sorenson voted against it.

Under a new state law, every school board across North Carolina is required to hold a public vote every month on their policies regarding wearing masks at school, regardless of whether officials plan to change the policy.

Most of North Carolina’s 115 school districts are still requiring face masks to be worn inside schools, though a few, including Union and Lincoln, have made masks optional.

Even though overall cases and hospitalizations in the county have begun to decrease in recent weeks, Stanly’s positivity rate, which is at 9.5 percent, is still above the 7.9 threshold at which point Superintendent Dr. Jarrod Dennis was granted the green light to make masks optional. Students will have the option once the rate remains below 7.9 percent for two consecutive weeks.

Student and staff quarantines and positive cases have also been decreasing over the past few weeks. For the week of Sept. 26-Oct. 2, there were 740 students and staff quarantined, which accounts for about eight percent of the almost 9,400 students and staff across the district. That’s a 17 percent decrease from the previous week’s total of 890. There were also only 61 positive cases for the week among students and staff, a 46 percent decrease from the 114 positive cases the week prior.

By comparison, more than a month ago, during the first week of school, there were almost 500 students and staff quarantined due to possible exposure.

Dennis shared with the board that for Oct. 5, 350 students and 16 staff across the district were in quarantine and only one student and no staff members were positive.

“I feel good because we’re continuing to come down and it looks like we’re really coming down. That was our goal,” Gibson said. “It seems like we will hopefully hit that number (7.9 percent) soon.”

“It shows that what we have in place is working,” Gibson added.

Graves said he also was encouraged by the declining numbers, but he wanted the board to reduce the time from two weeks to one week after the rate fell below 7.9 percent for Dennis to make masks optional. His proposal never gained any traction.

With the COVID metrics declining, Graves also offered up a motion to amend the mandate to allow for masks to become optional, even though the quarantine periods would remain the same.

“I think this would be similar to what Union County is doing,” he said.

The board denied his motion 4-2, with only Sorenson voting alongside Graves in support. A few minutes later, the board approved a motion to extend the current mask mandate.

Mixed opinions during public comment 

There was a contingent of around 45 people waiting outside of the staff development room, a departure from its usual location inside the Gene McIntyre Meeting Room. The decision was made to change locations because several board members had felt uncomfortable in past meetings dealing with belligerent members of the public.

When it came time for public comments, several people were once again angry about the board extending the mask mandate, though a few people spoke in favor of the board.

Levi Greene, who spoke during last month’s meeting, accused board members of not responding to his emails and stated that the death rate among children under 17 in the state is “zero percent.” This is false, as just last month a 6-year-old in Charlotte died after contracting the virus. According to state health data, while deaths among children 17 and younger are incredibly rare, eight children in the state have died after contracting the virus.

After Greene’s three minutes were up, he refused to leave and began yelling at the board members, even issuing a vague threat that if he saw them in public not wearing masks “you will have a conversation with me.” Sheriff Jeff Crisco and a deputy physically escorted him out of the room. He was still yelling even after he had left.

Upon Greene leaving, Gibson requested a Zoom meeting for the next month, with Carla Poplin noting that “it’s not safe.”

Board Chairman Jeff Chance, who made news by announcing his resignation at the end of the meeting, said his life had been threatened over the past few months.

Wesley Huneycutt, who has children in the school system, said that while COVID poses a low health risk to children, masks have been a problem, with many reporting headaches, difficulty breathing, dizziness and fatigue.

Health officials in Stanly County, including Health Department Director David Jenkins, and others across the state and the country, have continued to promote the importance of masks, saying masks help reduce a person’s chances of getting infected.

Like some other parents in recent meetings, Huneycutt told the board to either show courage and reverse the mask mandate or resign.

“It’s exhausting to suppress people’s freedom and you will grow weary of doing so long before we run out of steam,” he said.

In contrast to Greene and Huneycutt, Lorie Bell, an AIG teacher at West Stanly Middle School, took time to offer her support for the school board, saying that during the pandemic it has always looked out for the best interests of the students.

“Thank you, school board and district leaders, from the bottom of my heart, because even when I have disagreed with you, you have had one steadfast value from the beginning and that is that our children need to be in school,” Bell said. “You have stood by that value. You have done what it has taken for our kids to be in that classroom, socializing, growing and learning.”

She said the school system’s mask policy is not about a piece of cloth, but instead is about “having our children maximizing their time in that classroom and I am very grateful for that.”

Even though school board members have been attacked and insulted, with many having been called cowards, “nothing could be further from the truth,” Bell said. Despite all the uproar and noise in the background, she said the board has stood by its values.

“We support you and appreciate your work and dedication and I hope you can hear the applause over the criticism,” she said as her allotted time expired.

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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