GREENVILLE, N.C. — After the vote, two sheriff’s deputies moved in closer to the middle of the room to help usher the roughly two dozen anti-mask protesters out.
The Pitt County Board of Education had just voted 6-2 to require all students, staff and teachers to wear masks inside school buildings. Pitt County was the last school district of 115 in North Carolina to decide on requiring masks.
Gov. Roy Cooper and the state Department of Health and Human Services released guidelines last month on safely starting the school year, including requiring masks. But the state left it up to North Carolina’s 115 school districts to decide for themselves on masks in schools.
As of Monday afternoon, 56 school boards in the state have voted to require masks in classrooms in recent weeks, according to a count by Spectrum News 1 and the North Carolina School Boards Association. That includes all of the most populous counties in the state.
Pitt County put off voting on masks until Monday, the last school district in the state to make a decision. The board had planned to vote on masks earlier this month, but decided to put off a decision as guidance from state and federal public health officials continued to evolve.
The debates over masks in schools in Pitt County mirrored those in districts around the state: should masks be a parental choice or should elected leaders make a safety decision?
For many school board members around the state, it’s come down to the quarantine rules.
If a student is wearing a mask and gets exposed to someone with the virus who is also wearing a mask, they do not have to miss up to two weeks of school to quarantine.
“At the end of the day, we want these kids in school,” board member Anna Bennett Smith said during Monday’s meeting.
“This is a closely divided issue here in Pitt County, and in our country and our state,” board member Carolina Doherty said. “It’s the best thing to keep our kids in schools, to require masks.”
Board member Worth Forbes, who voted against the mask mandate, said the school board polled families and a majority was opposed to requiring face masks.
“I do believe though that parents should have the right to choose,” Forbes said, to cheers from some in the audience.
He said he worried about the social and emotional toll requiring masks would have on students. “Kids being able to see faces and mouths is important for learning,” he said.
But his arguments ultimately lost and the Pitt County Board of Education voted to require masks in school buildings beginning on Tuesday.
Some school boards that voted in recent weeks to reject state guidelines have had to rethink those decisions.
When the Transylvania County school board met on Aug. 2, members voted to make masks optional. But Sunday night, as students and parents prepared for the first day of class, the superintendent sent out a note to everyone: masks will be required in school buildings when students return for the new school year.
“The Transylvania County Health Department and our school nurses have notified me of multiple positive cases and potential cases of COVID-19 among faculty members and students over the last 72 hours,” Superintendent Jeff McDaris said.
In the letter to students, parents and staff, McDaris said the school board would meet Monday in this rural county in the mountains of western North Carolina. The board could reconsider its vote to make masks optional.
If Transylvania votes to reverse course, it would join Johnston, Ashe, Buncombe and Henderson county school boards to reverse its decision and require masks.
The governor and state public health officials sent a letter to school boards and superintendents last week asking school boards to reconsider masks in schools.
“The science is clear that children learn better when they attend school in person and the science is also clear that masks reduce COVID infections so we can keep them there. The Delta variant is moving fast and I strongly urge school leaders who have made masks optional to reconsider and make them mandatory,” the governor said in a statement last week.