Orange County band students at A.L. Stanback Middle School in Hillsborough play their instruments while complying with a mask mandate that is controversial among some parents. Photo courtesy of Orange County Schools.

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The latest flashpoint at North Carolina school board meetings is not the math curriculum or even the budget. It’s mask mandates.

Parents smashed a glass door during an Iredell-Statesville School District meeting. White supremacists usurped an Orange County student-led protest against mask mandates and limitations on observers for school sports in Hillsborough. 

Following similar incidents around the state, boards are responding by increasing security at public meetings.

“I’ve talked to school board members who are getting death threats,” said Leanne Winner, executive director for the N.C. School Boards Association. “That is a level of discourse that is not acceptable, nor is it something school board members are used to.”

The disruptions have gotten so bad that the N.C. School Boards Association asked the state legislature to decide mask mandates instead of locals.

“There have been several instances of significant disruption by protesters that have led to board meetings having to recess or adjourn,” wrote Winner and Amy Churchill, president of the NCBSA, last month. “Eventually, we fear that someone is going to get hurt.”

The clashes are coming to a head as school boards, required by state law, consider whether masks should be required or optional every month.

“This mandate (for boards to vote once a month) has and will continue to exacerbate the issues above,” the letter states.

School boards often toil late hours discussing the mechanics of learning, improving outcomes for low-income children and squeezing utility out of bare budgets.

“Generally, we like to remind the public that while they are elected officials and public servants, it is important that we have the proper level of discourse going on,” Winner said. “Our children are watching adults as examples of how to conduct themselves.”

The pandemic added a new layer of stress for boards, as children remained away from classrooms for nearly a year to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Starting in the fall, districts made cautious advances to return students to in-person learning.

The virus has spread faster among children recently because children were largely not in school for the first months of the pandemic. The virus has spread faster than before with the emergence of the more transmissible delta variant.

“Any thought that COVID did not spread well among children is definitely no longer accurate,” said Dr. Zack Moore, an epidemiologist with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. 

“It’s really important right now for us to maximize layered strategies. Masking, particularly in schools, is a really critically important one of those prevention strategies.”

While 70% of North Carolina adults are fully vaccinated, just 40% of children ages 12-17 are fully vaccinated, according to data from DHHS and the Mayo Clinic. The largest population of unvaccinated people are those under the age of 12 since they are not eligible for any vaccine.

The toll of the pandemic continues to mount. More than 700,000 people in the United States have died from the coronavirus since March 2020. And at least 140,000 children have lost at least one parent or caregiver during the pandemic in the U.S., according to a study published recently in the medical journal Pediatrics.

School mask politics

Multiple school boards have retreated from mask mandates in North Carolina.

Half a dozen school boards have voted to make mask-wearing optional, including districts in Harnett, Lincoln, Pender, Union and Yancey counties.

The Avery County Board of Education voted 3-2 to require masks starting Oct. 6, after having made them optional earlier, according to a report from WBTV. Avery County has among the highest rates per 1,000 infections in the state, at 13, according to a Carolina Public Press analysis of school populations and data from the NCDHHS. 

As Lincoln County’s Board of Education lifted its mask mandate, parents sued to protect their children, many of whom live with a disability, and Disability Rights NC joined the parents in the lawsuit.

However, Superior Court Judge James Morgan declined to halt Lincoln’s mask-optional policy.

DRNC supervising attorney Ginny Fogg said she was 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 last month.

The Lincoln County Board of Education will decide Tuesday whether to require masks or continue to make them optional indoors.

In Orange County, “tensions are very high,” said the board’s chairwoman, Hillary MacKenzie

“We have received some threatening language in public comment at meetings. I think some board members are definitely facing that through email and phone calls, and on social media as well.”

The board has increased security at meetings and is considering installing a metal detector, she said. MacKenzie said science will guide the board’s decision about mask-wearing. Still, she said board members have notified the sheriff’s office more than once. She confirmed board members have received death threats.

Orange County’s infection rate is relatively low compared with other counties, at 1.2 per 1,000 students, which includes students enrolled in private schools.

One man at a September Orange County Board of Education meeting spoke against the mask mandate and referred to a biblical passage, in which Jesus says those who cause others to stumble should be drowned in the ocean. MacKenzie politely cut him off and asked for the next speaker.

Winner, with the state School Boards Association, said board members must follow board policies during contentious debates — and call law enforcement when they feel unsafe.

“Some of them have never had to have local law enforcement at meetings,” Winner said. “They have to have a plan to make sure they know what to do if something goes awry.”

COVID-19 and children

While children rarely see serious complications from COVID-19, it is so far unknown what long-term effects they or anyone may suffer from a passing COVID-19 infection. Even mild cases can start off a chain reaction of what some are calling “long COVID,” in which a person can have a range of symptoms from exhaustion to difficulty breathing or a change in taste or smell over multiple weeks or months, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

Some children experience multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which can lead to organ failure and death.

Moore said people must use multiple methods to prevent the virus from spreading, starting with vaccination.

“If your community is highly vaccinated, then you’re going to have less introductions into your school system, and that’s the best thing you can do,” Moore said.

However, for the past several months, the CDC has said each county in North Carolina has experienced high levels of community transmission, and Moore said many of those infections are in children.

“We are seeing the highest numbers and the highest rates of COVID infections in children that we’ve ever seen,” Moore said in late September. “The rates of infection, meaning the number of cases per population, has been higher in children than any other age group for the past three weeks.

“This is really a reflection of higher rates of transmission in kids.”

Once transmission rates are lower, it will be time to reassess strategies, Moore said, but now is not that time.

“Nobody envisions the strategies that we have in place now being the way it is forevermore, but we are at a point right now of a really high transmission, and really high transmission in children specifically,” Moore said.

Recent studies show mask mandates work. Schools without a mask requirement were 3.5 times more likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak than those that started the school year with mask requirements, according to a study of two counties in Arizona, published by the CDC last month.

The longer people remain unvaccinated, and allow the spread of the virus, the more likely a different variant could arise, Moore said. “If we are to slow the virus’s spread, more people will need to get vaccinated.”

Pfizer, a pharmaceutical company that manufactures one COVID-19 vaccine among many other medications, has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for an emergency use authorization for a COVID-19 shot for children ages 5-11. 

“If this pandemic has shown us nothing else, it’s that we’re all connected,” Moore said. “So, as long as there are these large groups of people who don’t have access to vaccines … we are going to see this cycle repeat.”

Many school boards are seeking advice from local health departments and from experts at DHHS. They look to evidence from the CDC and examine the spread of the virus in their communities as they consider policies to preserve classroom learning.

“We all know kids learn best in a classroom with their teachers,” MacKenzie said. “To best protect that, we have to keep masks on our students’ and staffs’ faces so they can remain in the building. No one wants to wear a mask, but we have to do the right thing and stand strong in the face of opposition to protect academic time for our students.

“If that’s not what we are here for, we shouldn’t be here at all.”

Kate Martin

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