With the Lincoln County Schools new mask-optional policy in place on Thursday, some students wore masks and some didn't during the West Lincoln High School college fair in Vale. Photo courtesy of Lincoln County Schools.

The Lincoln County Board of Education may continue its mask-optional policy throughout its school district, a judge ruled Thursday afternoon.

Superior Court Judge James Morgan declined to issue a temporary restraining order that would require the district to enforce a mask mandate for students, staff and visitors to their schools.

Masks became optional for students in the district on Wednesday after a 4-3 vote by the board earlier in the month. Parents of 13 children sued the board, saying it was not considering the effects that a lack of masks would have on their children and extended families.

Some said they have elders living at home or were worried their children would be bullied if they wore masks. Disability Rights North Carolina joined the parents in their lawsuit. 

DRNC supervising attorney Ginny Fogg said she is disappointed with the judge’s decision.

“We are particularly concerned about its effect on Lincoln County students with disabilities and their families, as we know many students with disabilities are at far greater risk of complications from COVID-19,” Fogg said. 

“We urge the Lincoln County Board to consider the data and reinstitute the mask requirement as soon as possible.”  

Disability Rights NC spokeswoman Cas Shearin said the organization is considering its next steps.

Lincoln County Schools Superintendent Aaron Allen issued an emailed statement: “Like all other school boards in North Carolina, the Lincoln County Board of Education will continue to review its face-covering policy on a monthly basis, as required by law.”

Judge Morgan said the Board of Education was acting within its legal authority to lift a mask mandate, the decision for which occurred during a public meeting.

Morgan noted in his nine-page ruling that the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services provided a toolkit that school leaders can refer to for guidance in stopping the spread of COVID-19. However, no mandate to follow that advice is in place, aside from a mask mandate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for school transportation and a state requirement for quarantine and contact tracing.

While the state “has strongly recommended face coverings in schools,” the school board can decide whether they are mandatory or not,” Morgan wrote. “The board made the decision at a public meeting after considering input from the local health director.”

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 14.98%, compared with the statewide rate of about 10%, according to data from the CDC.

Like much of the rest of the United States, and every county in North Carolina, Lincoln County is experiencing “high” spread of COVID-19, according to the CDC.

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