By Richard Sullins |

For 200 days, Lee County students, teachers, staff, and visitors have been required to wear face coverings whenever they were present on one of the district’s school campuses. That requirement will come to an end on Monday, February 21, following a vote by the county’s school board Thursday afternoon to make masking voluntary again.

The vote was unanimous, with all members of the board voting in favor of the policy change that was recommended by district Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan.

Even so, the 12-minute meeting wasn’t without controversy.

Republican Board member Sherry Lynn Womack questioned the motives of other members who wanted to lift the mandate. Womack, who has consistently voted against requiring masks in schools, sought to put those who have supported masking in the hot seat.

“What has changed since our last meeting? The entire state is still (high transmission),” she said. “This is nothing but a purely political move. You are falling all over each other to make a motion to end this.”

Democratic member Pat McCracken offered a motion to make masking optional starting Monday, which wasn’t soon enough for Womack.

“What’s the difference if we take these masks off today, go to masks optional now? When will we as a board say that now is the right time to say we go maskless? What has changed?” she asked.

Board Chair Sandra Bowen, a Republican,  responded that the change in the state’s toolkit starting Monday is the policy shift that allows the masking requirement to be safely dropped.

But Womack kept pushing.

“That makes no sense,” she said. “Why do they keep putting the responsibility onto local school boards, but we never make that change?”

Bowen brought an end to Womack’s charges, saying, “you are in favor of the motion. Is there anyone against it?”

When no one spoke up, the vote was taken, and the meeting came to an end.

Thursday’s vote followed changes made last week in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit issued by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, a document that governs the ways in which the state’s 115 public school districts are to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. Those changes go into effect on February 21.

Some restrictions will continue, however. Students and staff who test positive for the virus are recommended to be excluded from school for 10 days. If they choose to return early after just five days, they must wear a mask for the remaining five day period. Also, the federal Department of Transportation requirements that mandate the wearing of masks on school buses are still in effect and not impacted by the school board’s decision.

There hasn’t been a statewide mask mandate since the summer of 2021. Lee County’s school board met earlier this month and made no changes at that time to its policy of requiring masks given the county’s continuing high level of transmission. The mandate had been in place since being adopted by the board during the height of the Delta variant surge in August.

The board began to lay out a roadmap for ending the masking requirement in November when Democratic member Patrick Kelly offered a motion to leave the August masking mandate in place until 10 consecutive calendar days of “moderate” transmission had been recorded in the county.

Since students returned to school in August, 1,370 students and 323 staff members have tested positive for the virus. Because of potential exposure, another 2,339 students and 91 staff members have been excluded from classes so far this year.

Lee County has reported 391 cases and three deaths from the virus over the last 14 days. The percentage of cases coming back from laboratories with a positive result during that same period is 20.1 percent, lower than Harnett and Moore counties but still higher than Chatham County.

The change in the masking policy comes even though each of the state’s 100 counties, including Lee, remains in a state of high transmission of the COVID virus and goes against recommendations made by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A small group of activists, some from out of county and others seeking election to the school board, has been coming to the Lee County Board of Education monthly meetings since August, seeking a repeal of the masking mandate. In recent days, several neighboring counties have dropped their requirements.

Also on Thursday, Governor Roy Cooper called on cities and school boards to end their mask mandates, saying that the increased availability of vaccinations and the decline of the Omicron variant have made it possible to put away the masks, at least for the moment.

“In the early months where there was almost no PPE or testing and precious little vaccine or effective treatment, we put protections in place like mandatory masking and gathering limits that no doubt saved lives,” Cooper said. “This variant is clearly more contagious, yet generally causes less severe illness, particularly to people who are vaccinated and boosted, and now people know how to gauge their level of risk and decide how to best protect themselves.”

The state legislature approved a measure this week that will allow parents, rather than boards of education, to determine the conditions under which children wear masks in schools. Cooper is expected to sign the measure into law.

Almost half of North Carolina’s school districts have now done away with their requirements for masking students after state health officials eased COVID testing protocols in schools through changes in the toolkit.