SMITHFIELD, N.C. (WNCN) – In a split vote, the Johnston County school board on Thursday decided to make masks optional for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The vote was 4-3 in favor of masks being optional.

Board members spoke about understanding concerns from those both for and against masks for children. Those in favor of making it optional argued the decision should be left up to parents.

In a presentation before the vote, the district’s Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Nicholas King, said he’s concerned no masks could potentially lead to many student and staff absences.

But, Board Chair Todd Sutton voted for the optional policy.

“It could cause major absences as Dr. King talked about; however, I would let the parents make that choice, not me as a school board member,” Sutton said.

The move defied recommendations made recently by Gov. Roy Cooper and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

“Studies have shown that masks can slow the spread of this virus among those who are unvaccinated – that hasn’t changed. We know masks work. The health, safety, and ability of our students to learn in person depends on school leaders following this guidance,” Cooper said on July 21.

Johnston County Association of Educators President April Lee said she’s disappointed with the board’s decision following Gov. Cooper’s recent recomendation.

“I’m concerned about our students and their ability to learn when they’re not gonna be in the classroom, because clearly quarantines are gonna happen when we have the option to wear masks,” Lee said.

She’s also a teacher in the district and said she’s concerned about bringing COVID-19 home to her daughter who is not old enough to be vaccinated.

Lee said the Johnston County Association of Educators does not keep track of teacher vaccination rates.

Johnston County, and most other counties in the state, have a substantial or high risk of COVID-19 transmission, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

A parent with kids in the county, Erika Hall, said she will be keeping her eight-year-old home and will send her vaccinated son with a mask.

“He’s gonna be upset and worried probably every day that he goes to school now,” Hall said, referring to her vaccinated son.

However, another member in Johnston County, Julie Daniels, is in favor of the decision. She said her five-year-old grandson who received speech therapy struggles with wearing and talking with the mask. 

“Parents need to make their own decision for their children’s health, and that’s what we’re talking about, right?” Daniels said. “So, it’s up to the parent, they know their child better than anybody.”

Other districts have meetings to look over the guidance in the coming weeks.

Harnett and Wake County schools will meet next week.

Harnett County previously voted to make masks optional for summer school.

Furthermore, Durham Public Schools is already requiring masks for everyone, but it will review the policy at a work session in two weeks.