A rally on Tuesday called to end the mask mandate in Wake County schools. More than 100 parents, grandparents, and students held signs and demonstrated in the cold outside Wake public school headquarters in Cary during a school board meeting.

Carolina Teachers Alliance, the American Teachers Alliance, Open-NC.US, and Wake County’s Moms for Liberty held the “Unmask the Kids Rally” to bring awareness to the effects the mandate is having on children and teachers. Their goal is to have the school board set a special meeting to vote on removing the mandate before March 1. 

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mark Walker was there and told the crowd of parents it was time to “dig in” and protect their personal freedom.

The protest comes amid a growing call to end mask mandates in N.C. schools. The Chatham County Board of Education is the most recent to vote in favor of making masks optional. Board members voted Monday, Feb. 14, 5-0 to no longer require athletes to wear masks during sporting events, effective Tuesday. The board also voted 3-2 to go to optional masking with a tentative start date of March 7. 

Other N.C. counties including Cumberland, Johnston, Moore, Henderson, Davidson, Union, and Harnett already moved to mask-optional policies, with Edgecombe, Northampton, and Franklin counties scheduled to consider mask optional policies later this month.

According to the N.C. School Board Association, more than 12 school districts across the state have eased school mask mandates since the beginning of February, bringing the total to more than 40 school districts, out of 115, being mask-optional.

source: N.C. School Board Association

Amy Marshall heads the Carolina Teachers Alliance and is a college adjunct professor with 13 years of experience as a classroom teacher, including in Wake County schools. She pointed out that many young students have never known a normal school year. She said it’s time to get back to normal academic and emotional development for the kids.

“Wake Board of Ed Chair Lindsay Mahaffey seems to be out of touch,” Marshall said. “She recently claimed there wasn’t enough interest in dropping the mask mandate for her to place the item on the board’s agenda. We want people to come to our rally to see how much interest there is in dropping the mask mandate. It’s a misconception on her part.”

Marshall and others at the rally said the decision to wear a mask should be left to parents and their children, especially in an area like Wake where vaccination numbers are more than 75%. Texas, which lifted its mask mandate almost a year ago, has similar case numbers to North Carolina, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Having masks in place doesn’t really have an impact according to the CDC data,” she said. “If the goal was to have a high number of people get vaccinated so the masks can come off, that goal was achieved.”  

Last week, the state Department of Health and Human Services updated its COVID management guidelines for schools, called a toolkit, to rein in contact tracing, but was criticized by Republican leadership in the N.C. General Assembly for not including mask-optional policies in the guidance. DHHS sent a letter to Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, in January stating that the toolkit was not legally enforceable but rather a strong recommendation for schools on how to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“In our minds, with that information, there really is no reason to continue with it, if DHHS is saying our toolkit is not even legally enforceable,” Marshall said. 

The N.C. General Assembly will consider a measure next week that would put masking choice in the hands of parents, not schools. Similar legislation is passing in state legislatures across the country, including in neighboring Virginia. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has called to end the mandate but faced opposition from the teachers union.

Leaders of both N.C. legislative chambers have called to end mask mandates for children.

Marshall says many teachers are frustrated too, but fear backlash if they speak out. She says the Carolina Teachers Alliance receives regular messages from teachers who say they are planning to leave the profession if the mandates are not ended soon, but they ask that their comments remain anonymous. It’s a different perspective than that presented by the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state affiliate of the leading national teachers union.

“I want people to know that the NCAE does not represent the majority of teachers in this state,” she said. “They like to make people think that they do, but they don’t. I think the NCAE has a great deal of influence over the Wake County school board.” 

“To promote an ideology that makes teachers afraid of kids and make kids feel that they are something to be avoided and carrying sickness is terrible,” added Marshall.