SMITHFIELD, N.C. (WNCN) – Education leaders in Johnston and Cumberland counties on Tuesday voted to make masks optional for students and staff.
The Johnston County Board of Education passed the revision to its mask policy Tuesday by a 6-1 vote. Masks will be optional beginning on Feb. 21.
Cumberland County approved the revision by a 5-4 margin. It will take effect Feb. 16.
Lee County voted to keep its mask mandate in schools.
Johnston County board member Kay Carroll was the lone board member to vote against it. He pointed to the fact that the county is still in the “red,” according to the state Department of Health and Human Services’ transmission map.
“We’ve stated to the parents and everyone here that our goal is to keep kids in the classroom in front of a teacher, and we’ve done a pretty good job about that so far,” he said.
Johnston County Board of Education Chairperson Todd Sutton pointed to the decreasing active COVID-19 cases within the school system.
“The kids and adults primarily only wear their mask when they’re in a school building. So if it was spreading rapidly amongst our students and staff, the active cases would be dramatically higher because they’re not wearing a mask anywhere else,” Sutton said.
“I think it’s time to give the parents the choice. Let them decide what’s best for their student. Let the staff decide on what’s best for themselves.”
If a school has more 4 percent “percent excluded” by COVID-19, masks will then be required at that school for 10 days. The district will then assess if the school can return to optional masks.
CDC data show every county in North Carolina has high community spread of COVID-19.
That’s why Dr. David Weber, a professor of epidemiology at UNC, said while cases have gone down this month, it’s too early to ditch masks.
“Now is not the time to be changing policy,” Weber said. “Even though cases are down tremendously, we’re still having more cases now than at the peaks of any other surge.”
Weber said while hope may be on the horizon this spring, as early as March, the current percent of positive tests and high level of community spread is still far above benchmarks he wants to see in any county.
“But by either of those standards, we are not at that point yet,” Weber said. “Mask mandates in schools have been tremendously successful in protecting children in school from acquiring COVID.”
The president of the educator’s association in Johnston county, April Lee, agreed.
“I think for the health and safety of our students and our staff, holding onto the mask mandate for just a little bit longer would be better just health wise,” Lee said.
But a group of more than a dozen community members and parents like Cara Chester, who pulled her eighth-grader out of public school over concerns with the district, said they want to see the option returned The group is delivering a letter with their demands to the board tonight.
“Our kids deserve to breathe free and at least have the choice of whether they want to or not.” Chester said. “I’ve spoken at school board meetings pretty much the last year.”