Schools will have to mask up


The Harnett County Schools Board of Education flipped its stance on mask wearing three days after supporting a decision to make the practice optional.

Board Chairman Eddie Jaggers called for a special meeting Thursday morning in response to Gov. Roy Cooper’s COVID-19 guidance toolkit that outlined recommended protocols districts electing not to impose mask mandates would have to follow for the upcoming school year. Due to the cascading effect of quarantines related to a positive COVID-19 case among people not consistently wearing masks on school grounds, the board voted 3-2 to reimpose the mandate for all students, faculty and staff.

Jaggers and Joey Powell, who both supported making mask wearing optional on Monday, joined Vivian Bennett, the lone school board member pushing for the mandate, in voting yes. Board members Jason Lemons and Don Godfrey held their positions in leaving the choice up to parents.

“With the governor’s toolkit that he put out ... we are not in violation of having a mask option,” Jaggers said. “Where we run into a bind is with the quarantines. That is the reason I have called for this meeting. It was simply that I wanted to make sure each board member understood where we were at with things. The toolkit making us quarantine people that are not wearing masks, to me, is why don’t you just make the mask mandate? Essentially you’re telling us that if you want to operate the school we have to do that.”

Like he did earlier in the week, HCS Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Jermaine White reminded the board of the mitigation strategies from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. The strategies show more flexibility for districts that require masks.

School systems that implemented the mandate would not have to quarantine, require social distancing, limit nonessential visitors, or limit field trips and could host assemblies. Students also won’t have to be put in small cohorts and there would be no requirements on hallway directions, entrances or daily screenings.

“It’s not about wearing a mask or not wearing a mask,” said HCS Superintendent Aaron Fleming. “I’m not wearing a mask, I’ve chosen that option. I’m not excited about wearing a mask. Basically, the rules are written in such a way that if a student is in a classroom not wearing a mask and there is another student who is positive, we lose that entire room. Where if everyone was wearing a mask we would only lose that one positive student. The rules are just written so it almost forces us in that way.”

Jaggers gave every board member the chance to express their thoughts on the mandate before casting a vote, as hundreds of people followed the meeting on the district’s Facebook page. The topic generated reactions from both sides of the discussion in online comments and the board’s 3-2 vote reflected the divide.

“The governor has almost made it impossible for us not to do a mask mandate because he wanted to take the heat off of himself,” Godfrey said. “He knew that if he did it like he did last time it would come back on him. Now, it’s going to come back on us; 80% of the people who called me last night were in favor of leaving it the way it was. Parents told me to let us make the decision for our children. It’s not your place to make the choice for our children. I will not support any type of mask mandate for our Harnett County schools. I will not be bullied.”

Lemons said the effectiveness of masks is not universally agreed upon.

“Quote of the day ‘masks are not Superman’s cape,’” said Lemons. “Masks don’t protect in the way they are being run up the flagpole to do so. This is not a way for us to run a school system.

“I’m not in favor of the mandate. I wasn’t in favor of it in May and I wasn’t in favor of it at the beginning of the month. It’s the parent’s job to guide and raise their child.”

Powell reversed course on his decision from Monday, saying he supported freedom of choice, but the governor’s toolkit and DHHS restrictions made it virtually impossible to open school should something happen.

“It’s just a tough situation,” Powell said. “I strongly disapprove of mandates but I feel like our hand has been forced by the governor.” 

Bennett, a teacher for 38 years and a school board member for 16, wanted to see the mask mandate imposed from the beginning, and said that while she agrees with leaving decisions up to parents, some are more responsible when it comes to their children than others.

“I’m just looking at it from a standpoint of safety,” said Bennett. “Our No. 1 goal in the school system is to keep your children safe. I’m not sure that everything the CDC or the scientists put out is true. I’m not sure they know what the truth is. I’m just saying that if we’re going to err, we should err on the side of safety. I don’t want any child to wear a mask. It’s just what the times have brought into our lives.”

More than 70% of school districts across the state opted for the mask mandate. White said HCS this week reported 19 positive COVID-19 cases (14 among staff) and 103 quarantines, compared to 12 and 206, respectively, from the week before. 

The Johnston County Board of Education pulled a similar reversal earlier this month, choosing to impose the mask mandate after previously voting against it. Harnett County commissioners on Monday took no action regarding a mask mandate for all county buildings.

Eliot Duke can be reached at or at 910-230-2038.


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