Alamance-Burlington school board members have voted 4-3 to require students and staff to wear face masks at all times inside school buildings and on school buses when the new school year begins later this month, regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated against Covid-19.
During a special-called meeting Monday afternoon, school board chairman Allison Gant, vice chairman Tony Rose, and board members Wayne Beam and Patsy Simpson voted to approve the recommendation to require all staff and students to wear face coverings when the new school year begins August 23. School board members Ryan Bowden, Sandy Ellington-Graves, and Donna Westbrooks voted against.
Students and staff at the Alamance-Burlington Early College (ABEC) housed at Alamance Community College’s campus in Graham also will be required to wear face coverings inside academic buildings at all times, according to Revonda Johnson, chief secondary officer for ABSS. The ABEC is scheduled to start the 2021-22 academic year today, she confirmed for The Alamance News Monday afternoon.
More than two dozen ABSS parents and community members attended the meeting Monday afternoon, most to stage a silent protest against a face covering requirement. Those in attendance displayed signs reading, “Unmask our kids for the virus with [a] 99.7% survival rate”; “Make masks optional”; and “Let them breathe.” None displayed signs with messages supporting the face covering requirement. School board members do not typically provide a public comment period during their work sessions or special-called meetings; thus no public comments were made during the meeting.
ABSS superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson said he based his recommendation to require universal indoor masking for students, staff, and the public on the latest guidance by the state Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) and U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Though the CDC recommends requiring all unvaccinated children who are age 2 and older to wear masks indoors, ABSS will limit the face mask requirement to students age 5 and up, based on the recommendation that school board members voted 4-3 to approve Monday afternoon.
NCDHHS officials are attributing a new surge in Covid-19 cases to a more contagious “Delta variant” of the virus, with one person infecting twice as many people (up to six other individuals) as the original strain of the virus. Unvaccinated people are believed to have a higher risk of catching the Delta variant and for transmitting it to others, NCDHHS secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said last week at a news conference.
Three school board members said they had gone back and forth in trying to decide how they should vote on the universal face covering requirement; three were firmly opposed; and Simpson was solidly in favor of the requirement.
Little room for compromise
Ellington-Graves proposed having an optional mask policy. Gant, for her part, suggested a compromise by way of requiring face coverings in common areas such as cafeterias and at peak times (such as arriving and leaving school) but to provide the option to remove them inside classrooms.
“Let the parents choose what is best for their child. . . We’ve gotten emails, as board members, [from people] on both sides of the mask debate, those who support and those who do not. . . As a parent, the one thing we’ve got in common is we want what’s best for our children. It was hard for me to go against the [superintendent’s] recommendation, but I think it’s what’s best for Alamance County.”
– School board member Sandy Ellington-Graves
“Let the parents choose what is best for their child,” Ellington-Graves said Monday afternoon, drawing a brief burst of applause from the audience, whom Gant subsequently instructed to hold their applause.
Bowden and Ellington-Graves indicated Monday that they based their opposition to the recommendation to require face masks in schools and on school buses at all times on emails and other feedback they’ve received from the community – the majority of whom, they indicated, oppose the mask requirement.
“We’ve gotten emails, as board members, [from people] on both sides of the mask debate, those who support and those who do not,” Ellington-Graves said, as audience members silently held their signs above their heads. “As a parent, the one thing we’ve got in common is we want what’s best for our children. It was hard for me to go against the recommendation, but I think it’s what’s best for Alamance County.”
Beam said he goes back and forth on the issue. “Three weeks ago, I felt like I might could compromise and say masks are optional,” he elaborated Monday afternoon. “One day, I say, ‘okay, I’m for masks’; the next, I’m against them… I have not made my mind up, and if you don’t believe me ask my wife – I told her to pray for me today. It was difficult a year and a half ago when we had to vote to close.”
Bowden noted that he had received 172 emails since Benson announced his recommendation to require universal masking last Thursday. “I had 138 emails for optional masks,” Bowden said during the special-called meeting. “I’ve also had 34 for the mask recommendation, to support that.
“This is where I’m at,” Bowden continued. “Parents, in my opinion, do not give up your rights when your child crosses that threshold of a public school building. I fully believe parents have the right to make a decision about what’s in the best interest of their child.”
“I am going to support the superintendent’s recommendation and the research behind it,” said Simpson, who joined the special-called meeting by phone. “As far as the email situation, clearly the word got out to send so many emails, which is the right of the public to do that.
“I’m going to have my grandson going to kindergarten this year – he has to correct me and remind me to put on my mask. It’s about the safety of our children and our staff.”
Westbrooks said that she has four grandsons who will be attending ABSS schools this year but she doesn’t support the face mask requirement. “I too believe parents have the right to speak on behalf of their kids, and I would much rather support masks as an option for this year.”
Mask up and get the shot
Rose countered, saying his understanding is that face masks aren’t intended to protect the wearer, but to protect other people. “It’s very hard to decide,” he acknowledged Monday, while echoing an earlier remark by Benson, who said Monday that, if one child tests positive for Covid-19, the entire class would be out of school at least 10 days, and the state Department of Public Instruction currently has no plans to provide remote instruction for the upcoming school year.
“As a parent, I get angry with myself because I realize I want my daughter not to have to wear masks,” Rose said during the special-called meeting. But, he added, one of the most persuasive factors for him is “we want kids to be in school,” and given the current guidelines from NCDHHS, having students wear masks means they’ll be in school more often. “I also understand the point Ryan made about the individual decision to wear a mask or not.”
“This is one of the hardest decisions we continually have to deal with,” Gant pointed out. “The angst that comes from the community is certainly heard and respected; the weight of this seat is great.
“I would like to have some brief conversation, if you’re willing to tap into my suggestion for optional masks in the classroom,” the chairman told her fellow board members Monday afternoon.
Rose said Gant’s suggestion sounded reasonable, acknowledging that some private schools in the area had operated that way successfully last year.
That’s easier, however, for a classroom that has 12 students than one that has 33 students, the vice chairman added.
“I was trying to come up with an algorithm, based on positivity rates for the county,” Rose said Monday. “The CDC has identified hotspots as areas with 8 percent or greater positivity rates; the problem is those types of metrics are available for the community as a whole, not for [individual] schools. If we have an outbreak in the class, the whole class goes home for 10 days. That means everybody in the class gets no education for 10 days. I think it’s reasonable to say if we have masks, we have more education.”
“[Public opinion] it is a gauge but should not be a determining factor with any decision that has to be made. Even in the classroom, children without a mask could, in fact, spread Covid, period. I hope that people will start wearing their masks and get vaccinated.” – School board member Patsy Simpson
“I agree with what Tony said,” Simpson responded. “I strongly listen to the public. You’ve been emailed from 100 people or whatever it was; it is a gauge but should not be a determining factor with any decision that has to be made. Even in the classroom, children without a mask could, in fact, spread Covid, period. I hope that people will start wearing their masks and get vaccinated.”
School board members tentatively agreed this week to revisit the universal mask requirement later this fall. The board is scheduled to resume its discussion about reopening ABSS schools for the 2021-22 school year during its regularly-scheduled work session next Tuesday afternoon.
School board members square off over their interpretations of whether masking requirement is “dictating” policy: https://alamancenews.com/universal-mask-requirement-stirs-spat-between-school-board-members-silent-protest-from-parents/