Transylvania school board stays the course. Masks remain optional.

Madison Cawthorn (Left)

A petulant, mostly maskless crowd threatened to vote members of the Transylvania County school board out of office if the board reversed course to make masks mandatory in the small western North Carolina school district.

In the end, the board voted 3-2 to keep masks optional after a long,  contentious meeting. School board Chairwoman Tawny McCoy repeatedly warned attendees that law enforcement officers would remove them if they continued to speak out of turn.

“We’re the board, we have an opportunity to discuss among ourselves, and that’s the point we’re at,” McCoy said. “So, I’m going to ask you to be respectful of us. We we’re respectful of you.”

The board had voted Aug. 2 to make masks optional, but Superintendent Jeff McDaris issued a statement late Sunday notifying parents, students, and educators that masks would be required on the district’s first day of the new school year, which was Monday.

McDaris’ decision came amid rising COVID-19 infections among students and teachers at several schools in the district of about 3,400 students.

District leaders reported nine infections among teachers and 45 student infections since Aug. 2 they believe are likely related to teacher workdays and “back to school nights” where masks were not required.

But news of surging infections and the forced quarantine of a high school football team and a middle school team didn’t sway a vocal band of anti-maskers. Dozens of them stood and raised their hands when one speaker asked if they are prepared to take their children out of the district if a mask mandate is adopted.

“Optional masking allows every parent and school staff member to make their own choice for themselves or their child,” said parent Ann Kimble. “The words ‘my health’ do not have ‘you’ or ‘yours’ in it.”

Others voiced boilerplate complaints that have been common across North Carolina as parents push back against mask mandates.

Many falsely contend that masks do not work to prevent the spread of COVID-19; that mask hinder the educational process; and that wearing masks can cause illness.

Many attendees cheered wildly when U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a first-term Republican congressman who represents Transylvania, urged them to “disobey” COVID-19 protocols handed down by federal and state governments.

“It is your duty to stand in the gap when people are trying to put tyrannical mandates [in place] that try to take the rights of the parents away to choose what is right for their children,” Cawthorn told the school board.

While a majority of the nearly 200 people attending the meeting appeared to favor optional masking, a handful did ask the board to reconsider its earlier decision and to make masks mandatory.

Retired pastor Scott Baker said it’s a Christian duty to protect children.

“And it is our joy to express neighbor-love to others in our community, and especially to our children and grandchildren; to give an example of caring; to express concern for those who are sick; to seek the health and welfare of all,” said Baker, who has two grandchildren enrolled in the school district.

Ora Wells, a Transylvania County physician, told the board that he saw 25 patients Saturday and that five had COVID-19.

“So, 20% of my patients had the virus,” Wells said.

He said the 2020-21 school year was the first in 40 years that he’d not seen the flu virus in the county.

“That’s because we all wore masks,” Wells said. “That’s how you prevent respiratory diseases from spreading. Six to eight weeks ago, we took our masks off because we thought we had beaten this thing down. We had an explosion of respiratory viruses.”

Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper made an “urgent request” to school boards to follow the guidance in the North Carolina Strong SchoolsNCToolkit, which recommends students and staff wear masks. The Toolkit aligns with guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. That guidance urges districts to do everything possible to keep students in schools and emphasizes continued masking.

Cooper and state health officials wrote asking school districts that made masking optional to reconsider.

“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,” Cooper said

The Raleigh News & Observer has reported that 65 of the states 115 school districts require masks while masks are optional in the remaining 50 districts.

Most of the state’s 1.5 million students return to classrooms next week.

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