Johnston County school board votes 4-3 to continue requiring masks despite parent protests

Posted September 20, 2021 5:54 a.m. EDT
Updated September 20, 2021 3:10 p.m. EDT

— The Johnston County Board of Education decided on Monday afternoon to continue requiring masks for students and teachers in a tight 4 to 3 vote, with members Michael Wooten, Ronald Johnson and Board Chair Todd Sutton opposed.

A new state law requires that school boards revisit the mask mandate each month, regardless of whether officials plan to change the policy.

The district decided to create a committee to determine when students will be able to drop their masks.

Board member Ronald Johnson, who voted against the mask mandate, said "I don’t see an end in sight, so we need to come up with a plan to start accommodating people."

Johnson proposed each school having their own policy, and shuffling students around based on their masking preference. This would cause logistical trouble when it comes to transportation, he acknowledged.

"If they're willing to stand on the side of the road and hold up signs, they're willing to drive somebody," he said.

The district has faced pressure to not mandate masks in schools from parent groups. The board met last week, where dozens of parents protested the board's current mandate — even though masks were not on the board's agenda.

Board representative Lyn Andrews previously voted that masks should be a parent's choice. She reversed her decision in August, and was once again the deciding vote to require masks in Monday's meeting.

Andrews said that she wanted to continue working with the local health department to determine metrics for when the mandate could be dropped.

Johnson discussed pairing up students who are unmasked with teachers who are unmasked, and said the ideas would need to be reviewed further in a committee.

"If you are an employee of Johnston County Schools and you don't want to wear a mask, we're gonna play matchmaker here, much like virtual/in-person [learning]," he said.

Board of Education member Terri Sessoms, who seconded a motion to require masks in the school district, agreed with establishing a committee to review metrics. She hopes the board will be able to "give [parents] hope that this is not forever."

Even if the board decides to change their policy on a mask mandate in the future, masks would still be required on school buses because they are considered public transportation.

Children make up the highest number of new coronavirus cases in North Carolina, state officials said on Monday. Many of those children, especially older ones, are seeking treatment at emergency rooms for their illness. Those under 18 are the largest age group of patients seeking emergency treatment, officials said. Hospitalizations still remain low for children in North Carolina, but the numbers are rapidly rising.

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., attended a protest against Johnston County Schools' mask mandate and rallied alongside parents.

Harnett County Schools, which neighbors Johnston County, decided last week that mask-wearing would be optional for students starting in October.

Dr. Elizabeth Tilson, state health director and the chief medical officer for the Department of Health and Human Services, strongly urged schools on Monday to continue requiring masks until the current virus surge has passed.

Johnston County has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state, with only 44% of residents fully vaccinated. Harnett County's vaccination rate is even lower — only 34% of the population is fully vaccinated.

As of Monday, more than 500 Johnston students tested positive this month and nearly 2,000 were in quarantine. Benson Elementary, Polenta Elementary, Smithfield-Selma High and South Johnston High all have 10 active coronavirus cases.

WRAL's Data trackers say that since July, coronavirus cases have sharply risen in the county. More cases were reported in the county once schools began than ever before.

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