Public schools in North Carolina were forced by the state to require students and staff to wear masks during the 2020-21 school year in an attempt to protect against COVID-19.

This current school year that decision was left to the individual school boards. However, it could be argued that the state was still trying to backdoor the mask mandate for the current year by requiring very different COVID-19 protocols for school systems that made masks optional versus those that required masks. The differing protocols are the reason some districts that voted over the summer to begin school without a mandate, went back and put mandates in place just before or at the very beginning of the school year.

Harnett County was one of those districts that reversed its decision and put the mandate back in place, but no longer.

This past week Harnett County became the first area school district to allow students and staff to decide for themselves if they want to wear masks. The board voted in September to remove the mandate requiring masks, effective Tuesday, Oct. 5, and re-affirmed that decision at the Monday, Oct. 4, meeting in Lillington by a 4-1 vote. Chairman Eddie Jaggers, Vice Chairman Don Godfrey, members Jason Lemon and Joey Powell voted in favor. Vivian Bennett voted against. Speaking just prior to the vote, Godfrey spoke about the divisiveness that has come about from differing opinions people have about the best way to deal with COVID-19. “It’s caused families to turn against each other. It’s caused neighbors to turn against each other, all because we have a different opinion”, he said. Godfrey pled for civility from the public, especially on social media. Bennett spoke about keeping Harnett County safe and said that she felt masks helped to do that. She told of a friend who wears their mask always, even sleeping in it.

On Aug. 2, the Lee County Board of Education voted 5-2 in favor of a mask mandate for students and staff. Chair Sandra Bowen, Vice Chair Christine Hilliard, members Patrick Kelly, Pat McCracken and Lynn Smith voted in favor of the mandate. Pam Sutton and Sherry Womack voted against. That decision was upheld again at the September meeting.

At the Aug. 2 meeting, Bowen spoke of her desire to keep her unvaccinated mother safe from exposure that could come from Bowen’s daughter possibly picking up the virus at school saying, “The idea that my daughter, who is not vaccinated because she’s not eligible, could potentially pick up a deadly disease and bring it home to my mother. My mother is elderly. She is in great health. She has chosen, for her own reasons, not to get vaccinated.” Bowen later added, “At the end of the day your rights end at the tip of my nose and your COVID will too, because I’ll have a mask on.” That logic would seem to imply if Bowen’s daughter wore a mask, she wouldn’t pick up the virus and bring it home, because the mask would stop it cold. Having her daughter wear a mask is a decision well within Bowen’s rights as a parent, but Bowen went on to say that she has an obligation to protect other people’s children too, saying, “My obligation is to protect them from what I see as a potential harm. And, if that duty infringes on your parental rights, or what you perceive to be your parental rights, know that it’s done with the best of intentions and I love your children enough to protect them as if they were my own.”

So, are mask mandates for children needed protection or senseless over-protection? How can we know? We can wait and see what happens in Harnett or we can look right here in Lee County.

Grace Christian School, with an over 40% increase in K-12 enrollment from the 2019-20 school year, successfully completed the 2020-21 school year entirely with no mask mandate. A year that was so successful, the 2021-22 year saw another year over year enrollment increase of more than 40%. Some wear masks, but none are required. Certainly, the mask issue wasn’t the only factor driving the increase in enrollment but the increase most likely would not have happened if the mask optional policy would have failed.

What about protecting the school staff? It’s hard to imagine that there’s any adult that desires to be vaccinated but hasn’t gotten the shot. The opportunities have been almost endless. Also, there are over 9,000 documented cases of Lee County residents that have contracted the virus who are now carrying natural immunity, plus more that had the virus but only tested at home or not at all. As for children, the American Academy of Pediatrics says, “At this time, it appears that severe illness due to COVID-19 is uncommon among children.”

The Lee County Board of Education meets Tuesday. It’s time to stop forcing masks on children. Truly, masks never should have been forced on them at all.

Jeff Ayers is publisher of The Sanford Herald

Jeff Ayers is publisher of The Sanford Herald