The Wake County Public School Board voted for making masks recommended but not required for athletics immediately. The vote includes extracurricular activities, ending masks requirements on Friday, Feb. 25, and for classes starting March 7.
The school board made the decision during a special Board of Education meeting on Feb. 22, despite passionate objections from a group of parents and families demonstrating outside the meeting.
Member Chris Heagarty made the motion to fall in line with the end of Wake County’s and Raleigh’s mask mandate, both ending on Feb. 25, and recent guidance from the NC Department of Health and Human Services. School board solicitor Jonathan Blumberg told the board it was their right to decide what actions to take regarding the mandate. The only area in which they can’t take action is on school buses in which the federal government mandates that masks be worn.
The board rejected two amendments by a vote of 5 to 2 that would have ended the mask mandate sooner. Board member Roxie Cash made a motion to amend the original motion to make the recommendation immediate for athletics and extracurricular activities and in classes on Feb. 28, while member Karen Carter also made a motion to amend the motion like Cash but in classes on March 1.
Blumberg said, if S.B. 173, Free the Smiles Act, goes into effect, it will supersede all local laws. The Republican-led legislature passed the Free the Smiles Act last week and it would move the decision rights over masks to parents, rather than the state or local school board. Gov. Roy Cooper has until February 27 to sign it or veto the bill.
WCPSS board member Dr. Jim Martin argued against lifting the mandate stating there was a “fifth wave of COVID-19 coming” and the decision should be based on metrics and not dates. He also said the board should be listening to the CDC and the American Pediatrics Association who still advocate for children continuing to wear masks.
Children and staff in the Wake County School System have been wearing masks on campuses since March 2020.
Lee, Wayne, Chatham, Cumberland, Johnston, Moore, Henderson, Davidson, Franklin, Union, Sampson counties already moved to mask-optional policies, with Edgecombe and Northampton counties scheduled to consider mask optional policies later this month.
Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday, Feb. 17, called for an end to local mask mandates for schools and local governments, though state lawmakers seemingly forced his hand.
Cooper, a Democrat, cited declining COVID-19 cases, vaccines, and boosters, expanded testing, available PPE, and treatments. Kody Kinsley, state health secretary, echoed Cooper’s comments in a news conference on February 17. If trends continue to improve, starting March 7, schools and other low-risk settings can consider moving to voluntary masking at the discretion of local authorities.
Amy Marshall, who heads the Carolina Teachers Alliance, sent a letter last week on behalf of the alliance school staff and parent affiliate membership to WCPSS Superintendent Cathy Moore and WCPSS board members, urging them to lift the mask mandate immediately. She said there is no reason to wait, given the fact that both the NC House and Senate passed the Free the Smiles Act with a veto-proof majority. “The legislature revealed the will of the people on the school mask mandate issue,” she said.
“If you drag this out, you will cause further disruptions and more learning loss,” Marshall added.
Pushback from parents, teachers, and other community members has caused legislators and governors to take a step back and revisit the guidance on mask mandates for children. Critics say wearing masks not only hurts children’s learning abilities but also affects them socially and mentally.
Cooper’s and Kinsley’s actions came after the House Committee on Education announced a hearing on the Free the Smiles Act. The House ultimately passed the measure, 76-42. The Senate passed it 29-17, on February 17.