Despite request from school boards for help, Republicans beat back efforts to end monthly mask mandate votes

Posted September 28, 2021 7:31 p.m. EDT
Updated September 29, 2021 8:54 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina school boards won't get a break from angry mask protests anytime soon.

Twice in two days, House Republicans blocked efforts to undo a recently passed law that requires school boards to hold public votes every month on their masking policies.

Most systems have a mask requirement in place to help stem transmission of coronavirus. But people angry over mask mandates have held rallies outside school board meetings, engaged in shouting matches and even damaged property. Some meetings have even had to be postponed or moved due to threats to members or their families.

The North Carolina School Boards Association asked Cooper and lawmakers to change the rule, citing the heated rhetoric over masks in schools.

“A disturbing trend is occurring across the State over COVID-19 mitigation measures," the group said in its letter to lawmakers. "There are increasing numbers of disruptions and cases of verbal abuse by protestors. Boards chairs have been forced to recess or adjourn meetings. There were accusations of one attendee bringing a weapon to a school board meeting. Property has been damaged. School board members and staff have received threats. Security has been significantly increased at board meetings. Rallies and protests are organized by people who don’t even live in the district. Board members and staff fear it’s just a matter of time before it escalates to serious violence."

The weapon reference may be to western North Carolina Congressman Madison Cawthorn, who reportedly brought a knife to a Henderson County school board meeting. Cawthorn also traveled to the Triangle earlier this month for a Johnston County school board meeting.

House Democrats tried twice to to repeal the requirement, instead linking votes on mask policies to changes in local coronavirus metrics.

Rep. Amos Quick, D-Guilford, called the proposed rollback an issue of public safety.

"We sit here and have the comfort of an entire police force to protect us. We have a controlled public environment here [at the legislature], where we make school boards – and many of you, like myself, have served on school boards – don't have those luxuries, and these school board meetings are getting more and more contentious," Quick said.

Republicans opposed any change to the monthly vote, arguing that "someone would be deciding in private" whether changes to a district's policy were needed, which would violate state open meetings laws.

Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, said parents should have the opportunity to voice their opinion on mask mandates as often as possible.

"I certainly don't want encourage or condone any kind of violence that some people seem to think is going to occur," Pittman said. "But I think they need to hear a lot from the parents because – I mean, I don't get my way, but if I had my way, there would be no vaccine or mask mandates anywhere."

House Minority Leader Robert Reives said school board members didn’t sign up to be in the middle of the debate month after month. He said he’s heard from some in both Democratic and Republican parties.

"'I really would like to not be on the news every month. I'd really like to get back to school board stuff. I really don't want to be in y'all's debate about masks and science and all that stuff. Can we get back to doing school things?'” Reives said to summarize the school board members' discussions with him. "This amendment gives them this opportunity."

However, the proposal to amend Senate Bill 695, an unrelated education bill, was voted down, largely on party lines – by a 4-9 vote Tuesday evening in the House Rules committee and 41-51 on the House floor Wednesday.

Gov. Roy Cooper signed the required monthly vote into law as part of a much broader state education bill that authorized a number of school responses to the pandemic. But but he and state school leaders have called for an end to incivility and threats of violence.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis and Vice Chairman Alan Duncan issued a joint statement Tuesday, calling for responsible behavior at school meetings, but they stopped short of asking lawmakers to undo the meeting requirement.

"The increased hostility and threats of force that we have seen across the state are not reflective of what we expect and ask of our own students: treating others with kindness and respect," the officials said. "As educators, as parents and as concerned citizens, we respect the rights of our fellow citizens to share their concerns and voice their opinions. However, this must be done without the use of intimidation or intentionally inspiring fear."

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