ALBEMARLE — The Aug. 3 meeting of the Stanly County Board of Education often resembled an informal townhall, with audience members shouting questions and objections to the board, but the board ultimately voted 6-1 to approve a resolution requiring masks on school grounds for students, teachers and visitors during the 2021-22 year. The board attempted to convey multiple times that their hands were tied by the state, and that the moment they were able to make masks optional again, they would.
The meeting began with Dr. Jarrod Dennis, the school superintendent, reading the resolution, which he said was drafted by Chris Campbell of Campbell Shatley law firm.
The resolution cited the recent North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) revision of their guidance for schools as well as the rise in COVID-19 cases in the state and county, as reported by NCDHHS.
“Now, therefore, the Stanly County Board of Education resolves and adopts the following: No. 1, while inside school buildings and other enclosed spaces utilized for student learning, field trips or enrichment activities, face coverings will be required for all employees and students for the 2021-2022 school year.”
The resolution said the board was taking this action because they were dedicated to maximizing opportunities for in-person instruction for their students.
After Dennis read the words “face coverings will be required,” the crowd in attendance began shouting, “No,” repeatedly, drowning out Dennis.
Chairman Jeff Chance then tried to speak over the crowd to regain calm, saying, “Order, order — I will clear this room. I’m not going to tolerate any disruption tonight.”
Dennis then continued, saying that “until the positivity rate for Stanly County falls below 7.9% during a consecutive two-week period,” this mask rule will have to remain.
The requirement does not apply to outdoor activities, like recess and physical education, but social distancing will be required at these times. Also, parents and other visitors to the school will have to wear masks indoors, and, if they are unvaccinated, outdoors as well.
Stanly County is considered a “red area,” due to a positivity rate of 13.9%, and will need to reduce to 7.9% to be a yellow area. The board said once the levels in the county drop to yellow, then there are more practical opportunities to make masks optional, but not until then. Multiple board members even said they wanted to support the mask-optional path for this year, but realized it just wasn’t possible, frequently blaming Gov. Cooper for that.
“The board’s first priority is by all means to keep safe, in-classroom, face-to-face instruction for your kids,” Chance said. “This board was in full support of, and was, until this week, making masks options.”
At that the crowd again jeered and laughed, and Chance again banged his gavel and said, “Either hush, or leave; the choice is yours.” He said the board was in a “difficult position” and was then interrupted by a shouting man, who was removed from the crowd.
Chance then called for a vote, and a woman in the audience yelled that they deserved to be heard before a vote. Others in the audience agreed, with a man saying, “Would the board at least entertain the idea of letting us have our public session of speech before you vote on the masks?”
Board member Anthony Graves acquiesced, saying, “I make a motion that we amend the agenda to allow for the public comment to occur before we take any further action.”
He was met with loud applause. The motion was seconded and then approved. People then came up one by one, with all speaking in opposition to mandatory masks for the students.
“Are you aware that the number of children that died from accidental bathtub drowning was equal to the number of kids that died of Covid?” one woman said. “I mean, really, people. This is a disease that is not taking the lives of young people. They are not super spreaders. Why do we want to do this to our young people?”
Another woman said she had to give her child pain relievers every day after school last year because of the masks, adding, “The lack of oxygen can cause a brain fog in these children. And we expect our kids to learn with brain fog?”
Other parents also cited a lack of oxygen and cleanliness with masks, and multiple speakers threatened to hold anyone accountable during the next election if they voted to require masks.
Board member Bill Sorenson said he was going to vote against the resolution but that he also understood why his fellow board members were voting for it.
“If we don’t have this situation, the health department makes a phone call to Raleigh, and they shut our schools down,” Sorenson said. “There is no virtual option. So, personally, because I feel the whole thing is a political play from Roy Cooper, I stand opposed to the mandate. But y’all are beating these folks up here. It’s just not worth it.”
Board member Glenda Gibson said a main reason they felt like they had to switch paths and do the mandate was because of the quarantine requirements that send students who do not wear masks home when they are exposed to the virus but not those students who had been wearing masks. Watson said that last year her granddaughter was quarantined for two weeks three times in the course of a few months.
“So this year, I want my grandchildren to be with a teacher, face-to-face. If it takes that she’s got to wear a mask to be able to be in that classroom to learn, then… [at this point she was shouted down by those in the crowd].”
Graves then said the board had been prepared to go mask-optional this year, but then Cooper’s new policy and a presentation by the local health department changed their minds.
“When they removed the remote option from us, it means parents don’t have the option of saying, ‘You know what: I disagree with the board; I disagree with the school system; I disagree with the state; I’m going to keep my kid home and I’m going to do remote schooling.’ It’s not an option,” Graves said.
Asked why they couldn’t do both remote and in-person learning like the previous year, Graves said, “We don’t have the resources to do both. Last year there was funding to support options A and B; or A, B and C.”
He also said they don’t have enough staff now, so if they lose staff because of state quarantine requirements, which the district does not have the authority to change, then they worry they will have to shut down classrooms for extended periods, if not entire schools.
“The reality is this: Gov. Cooper has stuck us in a position where if we go totally one way, there’s absolutely no scientific justification for doing it and it absolutely imposes undue hardship, I believe, on the entire school system,” Graves said. “On the other hand, if we make it entirely optional, we’re going to run into a situation where the school system is going to have to deal with real problems. And there are going to be many students who are going to be forced into remote learning, and there’s no system for it — into remote learning which is going to create a burden for teachers.”
In further back-and-forth discussions between board members and those in attendance, the board made clear that the moment the local case numbers are out of the red zone and reach the yellow, they will make masks optional because state requirements will be different, saying they already have “given Dr. Dennis the go-ahead” to do that without needing extra approval.
At this point, the meeting devolved into shouting match, and Chairman Chance said he would put the board into recess for 10 minutes and clear the room. But a motion from a member brought the resolution for a vote instead. The board all voted to pass the resolution except for Sorenson.
The meeting can be viewed in full here.