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Cooper, Forest trade barbs over masks during virtual forum on schools

Posted September 21, 2020 3:36 p.m. EDT
Updated September 23, 2020 12:10 p.m. EDT

— Gov. Roy Cooper and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest went off script Monday in a forum on educational issues to debate wearing masks in public.

Noting that he is trying to slowly reopen schools for in-person instruction during the coronavirus pandemic to avoid a spike a new cases, Cooper said it was "stunning" to hear Forest call last week for immediately opening all schools and not require students or teachers to wear masks.

"Not only is that wrong, it's dangerous and ignores the science and advice of public health officials," Cooper said. "We all want out schools to get back to normal, but we can't wish this pandemic away. We have to put safety over politics, and we have to do more for public education."

The governor also went after Forest for holding indoor campaign rallies where supporters don't practice social distancing or wear masks.

"Those who don't take precautions ans don't wear masks are often the same people who hinder our progress." he said. "They're holding back the timeline for getting children safely in school because they're encouraging the spread of this virus."

"We should expect more of our leaders," he added, accusing Forest of spreading misinformation about the virus.

Forest was taken aback by the attack, saying it amounted to "character assassination."

"That certainly sounded like a political speech from my opponent, and I would just say [it was] full of untruths across the board," he said.

No virus outbreaks have been linked to any of his campaign appearances, he said, adding that school administrators – the forum was sponsored by the North Carolina Association of School Administrators – should be able to decide for themselves when it's safe to reopen their schools and what safety precautions to take.

"Many states around the country do not have a mask mandate. They say, 'You need to act responsibly,'" he said. "We can get our kids back in school in a healthy way."

Private schools have been operating with in-person classes for weeks without major outbreaks, he added.

Forest said the governor is trying to take credit for boosting teacher pay when he has repeatedly vetoed budgets passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly that included teacher raises. Lawmakers overrode his vetoes in 2017 and 2018, but the state has gone without a new budget since then.

"He actually vetoed every single teacher pay raise budget," Forest said. "He was claiming that he wanted more money for teachers, and yet, he was willing to give them nothing."

Both candidates also traded jabs on school vouchers and school choice.

"I think Lt. Gov. Forest really has one goal for our public schools: Starve them for funding and then use those tax dollars to help rich people send their kids to private schools," Cooper said.

Forest is satisfied with teacher pay and per-pupil funding, Cooper said, and will "rubber stamp anything that the legislative leadership tells him to do or say."

"I'm a proponent of school choice because I believe that parents really do want what's best for their students, and sometimes a one-size-fits-all approach to education doesn't work for everybody," Forest responded.

Most of the two-hour forum was a question-and-answer session featuring the two candidates for state superintendent of public instruction, Republican Catherine Truitt and Democrat Jen Mangrum. Vance County Schools Superintendent Anthony Jackson, the 2020 North Carolina Superintendent of the Year, moderated the superintendent debate.

Truitt and Mangrum also participated in a Sept. 10 forum sponsored by various education advocacy groups.

The event is one of a few debates or forums with the two leading candidates for governor in the Nov. 3 election. Cooper and Forest will also meet in an Oct. 14 debate expected to be televised statewide, including on WRAL.

The governor's race also features candidates from the Constitution Party, Al Pisano, and the Libertarian Party, Steven DiFiore, but they are not involved in these events.

WRAL Statehouse Reporter Travis Fain contributed to this report.

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