By Richard Sullins |

Although the number of confirmed COVID cases is now declining locally, each of the state’s 100 counties remains in high transmission mode. That left the majority of the Lee County Board of Education on Tuesday feeling it had little room but to continue the requirement for the masking of students, teachers, staff, and visitors for at least another month.

With the surge of the Omicron variant seeming to be on the wane, Board Chair Sandra Bowen, a Republican, said the school system had a little more leeway than before, but still not much.

“I think it has been well documented that school systems across the state are all over the place when it comes to mask mandates and thankfully the numbers are seeming to go down, where before they were exponentially going up,” she said.

Currently, 87 of the state’s 115 public school districts require masking, while masks are optional in 28 others.

Republican board member Sherry Lynn Womack said complaints she has received about masking were second only to issues with teacher assistants during the past month.

“Teachers and parents have continued to voice concerns in reference to masks,” she said. “You go to ball games and see people not wearing them. We don’t have correct masks for children to wear. So, I don’t feel that with all that is going on, the masks are being effective. I still believe it should be a parent’s decision.”

The board’s vice chair, Democrat Christine Hilliard, said she also wants to see the masks go but believes doing away with them too early could be disastrous on the education of children.

“I’m ready to get rid of the masks,” she said. “But unfortunately, it’s a requirement given the isolations and the exposures. Without them, there will be additional disruptions to their education. Those disruptions are going to turn to deficiencies. And then we will hear again that we are low-performing. (Children) have to be in schools. They have to be in school. If this is what we want, we need to get the requirements of the toolkit changed. That’s not anything we can do at the local board. We can’t change the requirements of isolation and exclusion due to exposure. That pressure needs to be put on at another level – not us.”

Democratic board member Patrick Kelly, who made a motion last fall for the current policy of at least 10 days of moderate levels of transmission or less before masks could become optional, asked “our current policy is that we still have to get to moderate transmission before we can drop the masks?”

“And we are nowhere near moderate transmission,” Bowen replied. “That’s the unfortunate thing with Omicron. It’s highly transmissible.”

“Our students have been wearing masks since school started, but yet our numbers keep going up, and up, and up. I don’t see how that has helped us,” remarked member Pam Sutton. “We are still subjecting these children to having to do this all day, every day and don’t give the parents a choice. I have a problem with that.”

Educators statewide have been making use of a document published by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services entitled “StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit” for guidance on handling the pandemic. While portions of the document, particularly those regarding reporting of cases, are required for school systems, most parts are optional. This circumstance is part of the issue surrounding the controversy around masking.

But the toolkit does not require masking. It is, instead, a recommendation, to local school boards in specific circumstances.

“NCDHHS recommends schools continue to implement a universal face covering requirement if they are located in a county with high or substantial levels, as defined by the CDC,” the document reads.

Lee County, as well as the remaining 99 counties in the state, are still at high levels of COVID transmission.

How health care professionals interpret the toolkit and its supporting data can be quite different than conclusions a lay person might draw from reading it. And that left board members searching for some way to meet its requirements but still find enough wiggle room to make their own decision based on current circumstances.

“The communities around us that have gone to mask optional have had to shut down and go to remote instruction because of staffing issues,” Bowen told the Board. “I know it’s been hard, but we have kept our doors open and our kids have been able to keep coming to school. The worst thing we could do now is to end that” by arbitrarily ending the masking requirement.

Womack sought the advice of the board’s attorney, Stephen Rawson, on what ranges of options were available.

“There has to be a way we can compromise,” she said, “because our children are suffering.”

Rawson said the board has four clear choices: continue with the mandate, declare masks to be optional, set a date for ending masking, or end masking immediately. He cautioned, however, that each choice carries with it varying degrees of legal and public health risks and urged the board to tread carefully.

Womack moved to make masks optional, a motion that failed by just one vote, 3-4. After some discussion, the board’s consensus was that the current policy of requiring masks for students, teachers, staff, and faculty would continue until 10 consecutive days of moderate level transmission have been achieved in the county, although according to state law, the policy will be revisited at the board’s next meeting on March 8.

Two days after the meeting, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper announced that state health officials are reviewing the toolkit and expect to issue an updated version in the coming days.