NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– It was the clash of the pro- and anti-maskers outside the New Hanover County Board of Education building Monday evening, after a group of protesters opposed to face-covering requirements crashed a press conference in support of the Covid-19 precaution in schools. The board of education is expected to vote Tuesday evening on whether students will continue wearing masks when classes resume later this month.
The school board will convene virtually after one of its members tested positive for Covid-19. Previously, the district planned to meet in person, announcing a new security check protocol and a clear bag policy –– a direct response to growing contentions in board meetings, stemming from several politically divisive issues, including mask enforcement.
The activist group NHC Educational Justice organized the press conference Monday to share a statement on the group’s support of requiring masks this fall. The event was publicized by at least one media outlet in advance, after the advisory went out.
In response to news of the 5 p.m. press conference, a counter event was organized by an opposing group. While a couple of those anti-mask attendees scurried out just before the press conference, declaring they wanted to give the other side a chance to share their opinions, others stayed and challenged the speaker’s arguments.
Anyone walking by probably would not have known what the press conference was for exactly. NHC Educational Justice member Sandy Eyles was surrounded by a collection of competing signs, both for and against masks. Her message was in favor of the use of face coverings, but louder voices suggested masks and vaccines are ineffective –– some pointed to the board member who recently tested positive as an example.
“Mask-wearing is the most equitable, inclusive, effective and least complex solution to protecting and educating our children,” Eyles stated.
It grew more antagonistic toward the end and immediately after Eyle’s speech, with one anti-mask attendee resorting to insults about the other side’s appearances. One person stuck an unsolicited sticker onto Eyles’ back when she turned around.
As of Tuesday morning, nearly a third of the 115 school districts in North Carolina have decided to make masks optional. New Hanover County’s northern neighbor, Pender County, is no longer requiring face coverings for students or staff as of July 30. Brunswick County Board of Education is expected to decide on its mask rules on Aug. 9 and has sent out a districtwide survey to gather staff and parent feedback.
Since Gov. Roy Cooper ended the statewide mask mandate last month, school systems are now granted local control over the mask debate. It’s a similar tricky territory as the reopening debates that occurred last winter; the New Hanover school board flip-flopped on its decision several times as Covid-19 numbers fluctuated before finally reopening elementary schools fully.
New Hanover County Schools has regularly referred to the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12) when making any pandemic-related decisions. Currently, the guidance strongly recommends all students wear masks.
Previously, the state was only advising districts to require masks in elementary and middle schools, since only youth 12 and up can get vaccinated. It expanded this recommended directive to include all students after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance last week.
One online petition in New Hanover County against masks, and other issues related to parental voice, has garnered the support of 1,000-plus signees.
Opponents of masking requirements argue it should be a personal family decision –– not the government’s or school board’s –– whether they send their child to school masked. Some argue the cloth over their kids’ faces interferes with their learning and threatens their mental health.
Proponents of masks, specifically NHC Educational Justice, argue taking the extra precaution will limit quarantines, keep children in school as much as possible, and reduce inequities. The pandemic shined a light on disparities last school year, from children losing their reliance on schools for hot meals to the digital divide.
Tuesday’s vote comes just as Covid-19 is on an alarming incline. New Hanover County Health and Human Services’ Public Health called it “a concerning resurgence” in a press release last Thursday. It reported 334 new cases in the last week, compared to 119 cases reported July 22.
The meeting starts at 5 p.m. and will be streamed live on YouTube.
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