By Richard Sullins |

Children and teachers in Lee County public schools will continue to wear masks on campus at least through the middle of November, following a vote at the local Board of Education’s October 12 meeting.

After a motion by member Sherry Lynn Womack to make masks optional failed, the board voted 5-2 to continue requiring the masking of all students, faculty, staff, and visitors at the county’s schools in response to the Delta variant of the coronavirus.

A new state law requires local boards of education to vote at least once each month on whether to continue requiring face coverings in public schools, and seven members of the Lee County Board of Education have consistently voted the same way since the beginning of August. Members Sandra Bowen (R), Christine Hilliard (D), Pat McCracken (D), Patrick Kelly (D), and Dr. Lynn Smith (D) have voted in favor of continuing the mask mandate at each meeting, with members Womack (R) and Pam Sutton (R) voting against.

Seven members of the public addressed the board as it once again took up the topic. Carrie Sloan, who has two children at Lee County High School, appeared agitated when she said “last week, parents of this country were told that if we voiced our concerns at school board meetings, we stood a chance of being prosecuted as domestic terrorists.”

As she read from her prepared text, she claimed that parents across the country were being threatened into silence by local boards of education and that mask mandates, such as the one imposed by Lee County Schools, violated the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

“Our children are not your political playground,” she said. “And you should all be arrested for child abuse for embracing this irrational and unscientific mandate. You are impeding on our children’s liberties by forcing them to wear masks.”

Sloan apparently referred to a memo sent by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to FBI Director Christopher Wray and U.S. Attorneys on October 4, asking them to organize a task force and convene meetings within the next 30 days to discuss “threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.”

Garland’s memo, however, contains no prohibitions against parents speaking out at school board meetings or any directives to label those who do as domestic terrorists. This rumor apparently has its origins in a September 29 letter from the National School Board Association to President Joe Biden that cited an increase in threats against school personnel that “could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”

Republican Lee County Commissioner Bill Carver read portions of Garland’s memo aloud during the public comments section of the meeting and said “I am amazed that [the Department of] Justice is rallying such an organized and powerful agency targeting parents when it has essentially ignored the civil unrest of the last 12 months, that have resulted in riots, arson, injury, and death to major cities throughout the US.”

“As far as Lee County is concerned,” Carver continued, “I am troubled about the chilling effect Justice Department action will have on citizens who want to appropriately communicate their issues to the Board of Education, principals, and teachers.”

Carver said he’s concerned that the Attorney General’s memo may keep some people from speaking their opinions in the future and urged the board to take action to allay any fears that parents might have.

Susan Laudate, however, a grandmother and retired educator, commended the Board for having the courage to keep the mask mandate in place.

“I have seen, through my grandchildren, the effectiveness of the universal mask mandate,” she said. “Both of my grandchildren have experienced COVID cases in their classrooms in Lee County. However, because they were wearing their masks and because the persons infected were also wearing their masks, only the person infected had to go home. My grandchildren did not have to stay out of school for 14 days like they did last year, and that in itself is a good reason to keep this mandate in place.”

School Nurse Supervisor Mary Hawley Oates reported that there have been 9,255 cases of COVID-19 reported in Lee County since it was first observed here in March of 2020, and that number represents an increase of 886 cases during the last month. Oates said that some of the numbers have shown improvement since last month, the county is still considered to be in high community spread status. 104 people have died in Lee County since the start of the outbreak, with 21 of them occurring within the past 10 weeks.

The number of students between the ages of 12 and 17 who have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine is now 2,013, which is up 167 from mid-September. Since August 23,999 students have been quarantined from potential exposure to the virus and another 457 students have tested positive.