Debate on masks continues

By ELIOT DUKE
Of the Record staff
Posted 10/8/21

Parents continued the debate over masking children Monday night as the practice went optional in Harnett County Schools this week.

On the eve of the school system’s mask move, residents …

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Debate on masks continues

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Parents continued the debate over masking children Monday night as the practice went optional in Harnett County Schools this week.

On the eve of the school system’s mask move, residents took full advantage of the allotted 30-minute public comment period during Monday’s board of education meeting to express support and concern for the decision. Led by some familiar voices and a local doctor recognized for viral YouTube videos, parents of Harnett County school children once again tried to sway the five-member board one way or the other.

Kimberly Potter, a lawyer and mother of two Harnett County Schools students, opened the discussion by asking the board to reconsider its decision and make mask wearing mandatory. Potter recommended at least keep masking in place until the COVID-19 vaccines become more readily available to younger age groups. Making masks optional, Potter said, not only goes against local, state and federal guidelines but increases liability risks for the school system.

“As an attorney, I’d be concerned from a liability standpoint if you make masks optional because what if something happens to one of your students?” Potter argued. “Without masks, what will happen is definitely more students will catch this virus, more students will be quarantined and school disrupted. The public health of our children should not be a political issue.”

Lillington resident Jessica Register addressed the board a couple of weeks ago and returned Monday night to act as a voice for people she feels are afraid to speak out on the issue. Register said kids are being alienated over masks and labeled a “bad child” by teachers for removing face coverings during the day.

Children get sent home and quarantined, Register said, for simply having symptoms of COVID, which include headaches and muscle cramps.

“Teachers are being terminated or being treated unfairly if they are not vaccinated and have to be out because of quarantine due to COVID,” said Register. “We all have the right to freedom of speech. Lets have some common sense about things. Fear is a liar.”

Fred Clarida, a former HCS principal and a 30-year educator, expressed dismay that the pubic decided to pay the mask issue so much attention in recent weeks while traditionally ignoring matters like teacher pay or low test scores. Clarida said he heard more complaints over the past year regarding masks from parents than students.

“The students didn’t complain,” Clarida said. “My daughter indicated that she seldom has a problem with her first grade class wearing a mask. Students will rise to our expectations. This is more about parents trying to prove a point than being a real issue to the students.”

Wesley Rich, an associate professor of public health at Campbell University, urged the board to reconsider its decision, claiming the evidence on mask use curving the spread of COVID-19 is “abundant and compelling.” Three national studies published in the past week, Rich said, highlighted the dangers of not wearing masks in schools, as system’s without the mandate faced a much higher risk of an outbreak.

“With the recent surge in the delta variant, we’ve observed a sharp increase in pediatric cases,” said Rich. “I want to be clear on one thing: if you think the delta surge is done, you’re wrong. We are seeing still as many new cases as we saw in some of the worst parts of the initial surge last year for COVID-19.”

Dunn’s Tracy Moore said her daughter attends Harnett Primary School and she is embarrassed the board went against county guidelines with its mask option. As a kindergarten teacher, Moore said she saw mask wearing decrease sickness in her classroom, leading to very little missed instruction time.

“The masks work,” Moore said. “They have kept my class healthy and kept my students in school. I have 100% attendance because the masks in place worked. Removing masks is not wise and it’s not smart. Please protect our children. It will only work if all of our children are masked. My children wear their masks proudly.”

Catherine Schwoebel, another return speaker, pointed to the fact that no school-aged children in Harnett County have died from COVID-19 and 75% of all deaths from the virus are among people 65 and older. Schwoebel reiterated her concerns over the school system’s messaging between the board and actual employees in the building.

“Please be reminded, you are elected representatives of the people you serve,” said Schwoebel. “You are the only ones in this room that were elected to create and vote on policy, not the hired individuals here.”

Matt Gore thanked the board for its decision before making note of a particular guest in attendance who also attracted the attention of several other speakers at the meeting: Dr. Lori Langdon, a Lillington pediatrician known for a series of YouTube videos related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gore referred to one such video on a study on school systems with and without a mask mandate and questioned its validity. Gore said Union County never implemented a mask mandate and experienced similar numbers to districts that did.

“I don’t question the results of this study,” Gore said. “The problem is this study doesn’t give an apples to apples comparison to optional mask wearing. It doesn’t even give apples to oranges. It’s just apples. It only studies schools that have mandated masking. That’s great, but what about the schools last year that had optional masking? The CDC did that study and it showed there was no statistical difference in the transmission of COVID-19.”

Langdon appeared before the board later in the meeting and echoed many of the points seen in her videos. She said that while children may not die from COVID-19 in large numbers, they risk suffering from several heart-related conditions and other effects due to the virus. Case rates and hospitalizations among children all spiked with the arrival of the delta variant, and Langdon said health experts continue recommending an indoor mask mandate.

“Schools without a mask mandate do have a 3.5 times higher likelihood of having an outbreak,” said Langdon. “Your students are my patients. Students in Harnett County are not all healthy. Some of them live with immunocompromised grandparents. It turns out children can just as efficiently as adults spread COVID to other people. This delta variant unfortunately is even more transmissible and causes a much higher viral load in the infected child.”

Several speakers said Langdon’s presence further proved the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic.

School board members eventually voted 4-1 to keep masks optional. Board member Vivian Bennett cast the lone vote against making masks optional in the schools.

Eliot Duke can be reached at eduke@mydailyrecord.com or at 910-230-2038.

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