By Richard Sullins |

The Lee County Board of Education voted 5-2 on Tuesday night to continue its policy for the immediate future that students, faculty, staff, and visitors be masked at the county’s public schools as the COVID-19 surge worsens. Voting against continuing the masking requirement were Republican members Sherry Lynn Womack and Pam Sutton.

A law enacted this summer by the North Carolina General Assembly requires each of the state’s school districts to vote each month on its policy regarding face coverings. The Lee County board’s vote came after three public comments and a briefing by Mary Hawley Oates, the district’s nurse supervisor.

Thesley Byrd Jr., who had addressed the board about the issue on August 2, appealed again for the repeal of the mask mandate, but also informing the board that “we have since disenrolled our children from the public school system. Please understand that my parental rights are not imaginary or perceived, as some have suggested.”

Byrd further called on those who disagree with the current policy to engage in what he termed as “peaceful noncompliance to effect the change you desire.”

Another speaker, Tammy McCurry, claimed that masks can lead to mental torture and even kidnapping.

“Children cannot see facial expressions, which is a very important part of development. It is very easy to abduct a child when their face is covered,” she said. “In order to protect against airborne diseases, you would need a respirator mask. These face coverings do nothing more than desensitize and demoralize. Are we living in Nazi Germany? This is America. Mental torture, cannot see facial expressions and made to feel guilty for not wearing (masks).”

But Sarah Shannon-Mohamed, a parent with young children in the district, took a different view, recommending that the board go further than its previous action and take stronger steps to prevent infections.

“In order to protect our students, it seems that more stringent protocols are necessary, like mandatory vaccinations for all staff, transparent data sharing, an option for students to learn virtually if their parents choose and continued mandatory masking for all,” she said.

Oates reported that COVID is spreading faster in Lee County among school-aged children than almost any other group. The percentage of COVID cases reported in the county that are within the ages of 12 to 17 has risen from 11.7 percent in May to 14.9 percent as of September 14. She said that in the three and a half weeks since the beginning of the school year, 653 students have been quarantined because of the virus and 303 have tested positive for it.

Oates said that one of the biggest factors that continues to spread the virus is parents who send their children to school when they have COVID-like symptoms or, in some cases, have actually tested positive for the illness.

“If all parents followed protocols,” she said, “we wouldn’t have nearly the number of exposure problems that we do.”

Because of the overwhelming demands that COVID has placed on school nurses, they have been largely unable to pay attention to the other medical needs that students often have, such as diabetes and obesity. However, the system is hiring additional school nurses to help with the case load.

“None of us expected to walk in the door on the first day of school and see the kinds of numbers that we are seeing testing positive,” said Oates. “None of us anticipated that the numbers would be as high as they are.”

At the request of board member Patrick Kelly, Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan will bring to the next meeting of the board several options that they could take to help prevent teachers from being burned out due to the health crisis.

The board also approved a new local supplement plan for its athletics coaches. Board member Pam Sutton said the plan “will help us to remain competitive in the divisions where our students play and send a message to our coaches that their work is valued.”

The increase averages about five percent but varies among positions.