By Richard Sullins |

Public attention ahead of the Lee County Board of Education’s Tuesday meeting was likely focused on whether the district would continue its mask mandate, in place since August. It did, along a 5-2 vote identical to ones taken in recent months.

But the meeting’s most notable event was the board’s vice chair pushing back against criticism directed at the board over the past several months by several public commenters.

Christine Hilliard, who was elected to the board in 2018 as a Republican but who switched parties last September, made use of her opportunity to speak just before the board entered closed session.

“Over the last few months, the members of this body have endured some unprofessional comments from many people within our community over the requirements of masks in school,” she said. “These are comments that have been organized in large part by the Republican Party headquarters in this county. Many have levied untrue and unfair accusations as to the reason behind the decisions of this board, which have included totalitarianism, cowardice, and accusing our school nursing coordinator of lies.”

Hilliard went on to say the school board exists to educate children and that politics shouldn’t supersede that objective.

“Many of those who continue to lament about this topic have failed to take into consideration the ramifications of its reversal,” she said. “They frame the conversation over the matter as if there are no consequences when a child tests positive for COVID for others around them.”

Hilliard is a third grade teacher with Moore County Schools, which voted to drop its mask mandate in December just four days before classes adjourned for the holidays. By the time students returned on January 4, MCS was experiencing a rapidly escalating number of COVID cases that forced the Moore County Health Department to provide updated guidance, requiring students in schools where face coverings were optional to quarantine for 10 days after a positive COVID-19 test or exposure, instead of the five days required of students in schools where masks were required. The Moore County Board of Education reinstated its mask mandate on January 10.

Hilliard’s statement followed comments critical of the board, including from Lee County Republican Party Chairman Jim Womack and two Republican school board candidates.

Mask mandate continued

The 5-2 vote to continue the district’s mask mandate had Republican Board Chair Sandra Bowen and Hilliard, and Democrats Patrick Kelly, Pat McCracken, and Lynn Smith in favor, while Republicans Pam Sutton and Sherry Womack were opposed.

School Nurse Supervisor Mary Hawley Oates said before the vote that the numbers of active COVID-19 cases now being seen in the county are higher than ever over the life of the pandemic. Oates said the figures are staggering – 11,609 positive cases have been reported in the county since March 2020 and the percentage of positive tests is more than 30 percent. At Thanksgiving, the rate was just above 3 percent.

Board members’ questions focused on the pandemic’s effects on children, particularly in cases severe enough to require hospitalization. Bowen asked if Oates was aware of any children from Lee County who had been hospitalized with COVID.

“We are not seeing the kind of nationwide stats of kids on ventilators, but we certainly are seeing some that are seeking care,” Oates replied. “I worry a lot about kids with asthma or other kinds of pre-existing conditions. And babies are often the first person in the home to test positive for the virus and then others living inside the house get exposed and contract it.”