Education

Masks mandatory: Harnett County Board of Education reverses course on mask mandate in 3-2 vote

Posted August 18, 2021 1:29 p.m. EDT
Updated August 19, 2021 10:03 a.m. EDT

— The Harnett County school board reversed course on their school mask mandate during an emergency meeting on Thursday morning to address COVID safety protocols.

After much debate, a narrow 3-2 vote made masks mandatory in Harnett County Public Schools.

Unlike every other school district in the WRAL coverage area, the board had originally voted not to require students and staff to wear masks this school year.

In recent weeks, since the state left mask requirements up to school boards, school districts across North Carolina have held both regular and emergency meetings to either institute a mask mandate or make masks optional.

Mask mandates by school system

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In a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper said he hoped the board would reverse its decision to make masks optional but said he would not reinstate a statewide mask mandate.

Harnett County has one of the lowest rates of vaccinations in the state, just 30%.

In Orange County, with the most people fully vaccinated, it’s at 76%.

Some parents have told WRAL News they’re worried about the county's lag.

In the last few days, the station has received several emails from concerned parents in Harnett County.

Now, the school board has called an emergency meeting for Thursday, and many parents hope members change their minds.

That includes Patty Rowland, who has two sons at Harnett Primary School. They're 8 and 10 years old.

With the COVID-19 Delta variant on the rampage, Rowland said, it's irresponsible for school leaders not to mandate masks.

“Because I don’t feel like they’re protecting children to the fullest extent,” she said. “My children are too young to receive the vaccine, so they don’t have the option to be vaccinated.”

On Aug. 2, the Harnett County school board voted 4-1 to give students and staff the option to wear masks.

Board member Jason Lemons told WRAL News he thinks that parents "can best make the choice" about masks for their children.

But Rowland said that's not good enough.

“I feel like my children, if they wear the mask, they will protect others,” she said. “But if others do not wear the masks, they’re not fully protecting my children.”

The Harnett County Board of Education was the first in North Carolina to make masks optional. They did so back in June, when the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services was still requiring them.

Lemons said summer school was "very successful" with masks optional, and he voted to keep the policy in place.

But he said since the board's vote, there has been "a tremendous amount of changes in the COVID realm."

He stopped short of saying whether members will vote to require masks at the emergency meeting, but he says the board has always been open to changing the policy.

District officials say they're doing extra sanitizing and following federal health guidelines.

“We can try to do the best we can with cleaning and social distancing,” Rowland said. “But in the elementary schools, those are smaller children, and they’re going to be grouped together, and they’re going to be close. And without the masks, all those germs are going to be flowing.”

WRAL News spoke on the phone with two other school board members, including the chairman, Eddie Jaggers. They declined interviews.

Jaggers said he's received numerous calls and emails from people on both sides of the issue and did not want to say anything before the emergency meeting, which is set for 8:30 a.m.

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