A North Carolina school district is defying the state’s COVID-19 health requirements that face masks must still be worn inside schools.
The Harnett County school board voted 4-1 this week to make face coverings optional for everyone in its summer school program, including students and teachers. The vote came after Superintendent Aaron Fleming told board members that the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services had not changed its guidelines requiring face coverings in schools.
“Make the masks optional,” school board chairman Duncan Jaggers said during Monday’s vote. “If people want to wear them, they wear them. If they don’t, they don’t.”
It’s unclear what — if any — consequences Harnett County will face for not following the face mask requirements. It’s also unclear if other Republican-leaning districts also will decide not to follow the school mask requirement from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration.
DHHS did not immediately return emails and telephone calls from The News & Observer requesting comment on Harnett County’s decision. Fleming and Jaggers also didn’t respond to emails on the decision.
Cooper’s executive order, which includes the school face mask requirement, expires June 11. But Cooper and DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen have said they expect the face mask requirement to remain in place until more students can get vaccinated for COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommend face coverings be worn in school as well.
Only children as young as 12 can be vaccinated. A vaccine for elementary school-age children may be approved in the fall.
NC sticks with face mask requirements
DHHS has required face masks to be worn in schools since the start of this school year. The face covering requirement is part of the Strong Schools Toolkit that’s been adopted by the State Board of Education for how schools are to operate during the coronavirus pandemic.
During the course of the school year, DHHS has eased the guidelines to not require face masks be worn outdoors at schools. That change was made to comply with how the state lifted the face mask requirement in most settings.
“Students at summer school, as of right now, still have to wear masks and teachers in front of those students have to wear masks,” Fleming, the Harnett County superintendent, told the board on Monday before the vote.
But parents have held protests around the nation, including in North Carolina, calling for the end of the face mask requirement. They’ve argued it’s not needed because children are less likely to catch COVID-19 and have severe complications.
Most North Carolina school leaders tell them they have to follow the state mask requirements.
Other states have dropped their school face mask requirement, and some, such as South Carolina, have banned school districts from requiring them.
Reaction to Harnett County vote
North Carolina school districts are holding K-12 summer learning programs required by state lawmakers to help students address COVID-19 learning loss.
At Monday’s Harnett County school board meeting, Jaggers called for a motion to make face masks optional during the summer program. All four Republican members voted for the motion and the board’s lone Democratic member voted no.
After the meeting, Fleming emailed school principals with the news.
“This evening the Harnett County Board of Education lifted all masks mandates in all school facilities including student mask wearing,” Fleming said. “Anyone may voluntarily wear masks if they wish.”
Harnett County’s decision has been met with both praise and complaints.
“I can’t believe they are doing this. Especially when summer school is in person. No virtual offered,” Darlene Campbell commented online after Lillington-Shawtown Elementary School posted the news on Facebook.
Several people thanked Harnett and said they’d reach out to other school boards to also make masks optional.
“I just called a contact with Granville County schools, time for the board to call a special meeting. If Harnett Co can do it so can everyone else!” Danielle Foster Hayes said on Facebook.