Johnston school board didn't discuss mask policy, but parents, politicians did
Posted 5:27 a.m. Tuesday
Updated 9:27 p.m. Tuesday
Smithfield, N.C. — The fight over masks in schools turned political on Tuesday, when local and national candidates rallied dozens of Johnston County parents protesting the local policy requiring students to cover their faces in class.
Republican 11th District Congressman Madison Cawthorn and candidates Bo Hines, who's running for a U.S. House seat in Charlotte and Robby Starbuck, who's running for one in Nashville, Tenn., headlined the rally before the Johnston County Board of Education meeting.
"Are you tired of tyrannical school boards run by Marxists?" Starbuck asked. "Are you going to allow your parental rights be stripped from you?"
"We are going on offense to take our country back," Cawthorn declared to the cheering crowd.
Cawthorn told reporters that he doesn't believe masks are effective at halting transmission of the coronavirus, especially for children who frequently handle their masks and sometimes leave them on the ground or even swap them with classmates. He also said studies have shown an increased rate of depression among those deprived of social interactions because of masks.
Pediatricians say, however, that masks provide an extra layer of protection against the virus. Infections associated with K-12 schools statewide are at the highest level since the pandemic began, according to state data, and children under 17 accounted for 30 percent of North Carolina's case count last week.
After first declaring masks would be optional in schools this year, the school board reversed the decision last month, requiring face coverings for students and staff. That outraged some parents, who said it should be a personal choice. But others supported the move in light of the resurgent coronavirus pandemic.
Both sides of the debate were at the school board meeting Tuesday, as a smaller number of mask policy supporters made their stance known during the anti-mask rally.
"Why do we have a shortage of substitute teachers? Why are we not paying our teachers more so we attract better talent? Those are the things we need to talk about, not masks," said Allen Hall, of Clayton.
A Johnston Health official led off the school board meeting by painting a dire picture of the pandemic, noting that the hospital has been overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients in recent weeks.
District officials said 179 students and 15 staffers are currently infected with the virus, and another 790 students and 50 staff members are in quarantine because of possible exposures.
State data shows that only 44 percent of Johnston County residents are fully vaccinated, compared with 51 percent statewide. During the pandemic, 270 county residents have died from the virus.
Although state law requires school districts to review their mask policies monthly, Johnston County board members didn't have the policy on the agenda Tuesday. But that didn't stop people from telling board members what they thought.
"The reason for these mask mandates is not the health of our kids. It's all about control," one woman said. "We do not consent. We do not comply."
Kelly Kaspar, a mother of four and a nurse, said she and many others are willing to do whatever it takes to keep students in class this year after months of remote instruction last year.
"A piece of fabric blocking [viral] spread is a small price to pay to help keep our children, all of our children, safe and in school, where they belong," Caspar said.
Jillian Mallon, a Princeton High School junior, said her classmates were devastated by the mask mandate, calling wearing a mask for hours "torture."
"We now dread going to school," Mallon said. "It doesn't make sense why I have to wear a mask at school when I'm not going to be wearing it outside of school around the same, exact people."
Students who want to wear masks have the option to do so or take classes online, she added, so those who don't want to wear one also should have an option not to.
Teacher April Lee acknowledged that she doesn't enjoy wearing a mask in class, but she scoffed at the notion that masked teachers and students cannot bond in class.
"We're happy to be back in the classroom. That's the bottom line," Lee said.
Cawthorn also spoke before the school board, infusing the debate with his own brand of rhetoric.
"Children have been muzzled," he said, calling masks "nothing short of psychological child abuse."
During the rally, Dale Lands, co-founder of anti-mask group Citizen Advocates for Accountable Government, said the debate goes beyond whether to wear a mask.
"This is about good and evil and beating the evil at whatever cost there is," Lands said. "They're trying to take our personal freedoms."
Aurora Preston, who quit her job as a South Johnston High School teacher after she was told to go home when she refused to wear a mask even before the start of classes, also said people need to be concerned with more than masks.
"These are our children," Preston said. "We need to take a stand now."
Some speakers and protesters used the rally to express their opposition to critical race theory, which looks at history through a racial lens. State lawmakers tried to prohibit any critical race theory instruction in North Carolina public schools, but Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill.
School mask mandates have become a hot-button issue since students returned to class last month.
On Monday, the Harnett County Board of Education voted to make masks optional, starting Oct. 5. Parents gathered outside the meeting waving American flags and posters.
Meanwhile, the Moore County Board of Education canceled its meeting after board members received a threatening letter about the school mask policy. That meeting has been rescheduled for Sept. 22.
The Lee County Board of Education voted Tuesday to keep its mask mandate in place, and the issue was also before the Cumberland County Board of Education.
WRAL anchor/reporter Chris Lovingood and WRAL reporter Kasey Cunningham contributed to this report.