Pre-Kindergarten students at Love Memorial Elementary in Lincolnton wear masks Sept. 23 as they make applesauce. Photo courtesy of Lincoln County Schools.

A Superior Court judge is deciding whether to reverse a school board’s ruling to make mask-wearing optional in response to a lawsuit on behalf of students with disabilities.

Judge James Morgan heard arguments Tuesday in Lincolnton from Disability Rights NC and lawyers representing the parents of 13 children who sued the Lincoln County Board of Education, saying the board’s policy to end a mask mandate interferes with their children’s right to a safe education. 

The Board of Education voted two weeks ago to make mask-wearing optional as of Sept. 29.

“Without a ruling, masks will remain optional for staff and students beginning Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, as previously discussed by the Board of Education,” district spokeswoman Diana Carpenter said late Tuesday.

She said the judge expected to rule by the end of day Thursday.

Disability Rights NC spokeswoman Cas Shearin said someone from the organization will speak after the ruling. 

The lawsuit says the board went against “all public health evidence and guidance, and in the face of a rapidly deteriorating public health situation” during its Sept. 14 meeting “to abandon its mandatory masking policy in favor of optional mask usage.”

In the lawsuit, parents said they feared their students would bring the coronavirus home to infect vulnerable people, including grandparents and newborns. 

Parents also said the situation felt as if they were making an impossible choice — send their children to school where an unmasked population will more readily spread COVID or keep them home and sacrifice their social development. Throughout the lawsuit, parents were identified as Jane Doe, and children by their initials.

Also party to the suit is Disability Rights NC, which filed on behalf of students with disabilities.

According to data from the state Department of Public Instruction, more than 14% of the district’s children from the 2019-20 school year, or 1,599 students, have some form of documented disability. Disability Rights NC says many of those students have COVID-related risk factors.

During its September meeting, the school board talked with Dr. Elizabeth Tilson, state health director, for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, for about an hour as it considered lifting the mask mandate for students and staff.

Ultimately, the board voted 4-3 to make masks optional, according to the Lincoln Times-News.  The lawsuit said the board also voted to end contact tracing and cease quarantine for students who test positive but have no symptoms of coronavirus.

Lincoln County’s seven-day positivity rate for COVID-19 — that is, the percentage of people who test positive compared with everyone who was tested in a seven-day period — is at 14.9%, compared with the statewide rate of about 10%, according to data from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

So far roughly 43% of Lincoln County residents ages 12 or older are fully vaccinated against the virus, compared with the state’s 57%, data from NCDHHS show. Children under age 12 are not yet able to get vaccinated.

Editor’s note: This is a developing story and will be updated.

Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.