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Opposing masking events take place outside NHC Board of Education Center

Published: Aug. 3, 2021 at 12:48 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - With school board members in New Hanover County voting Tuesday on a mask policy for the start of the new year, passions on both sides of the debate clashed outside the New Hanover County Board of Education Center on Monday.

One group of parents and kids rallied on the steps of the Board of Education center at 4:30 p.m. They want the choice to to lie in the hands of families, not politicians.

“I am not saying that everybody should go to school unmasked,” said Josie Barnhart, a New Hanover County Schools parent at the rally. “What I am saying is that each family should evaluate for themselves where they feel comfortable and what they feel comfortable doing both for their mental health both for their physical health and make the best decision for them.”

There were a number of concerns voiced by parents during the rally, including mental health.

“Wearing a mask all day, eight hours a day affects people. It isolates you. It prevents you from emotionally communicating. It prevents you from verbally communicating because you’re isolated with this mask over your mouth,” said Kasey Brown, a NHCS parent.

Others claim that the science does not back the need for masks on children.

“The statistics show that kids have never been that high risk and I as a parent have been so grateful for that,” Barnhart said. “Before this school year started I just didn’t feel right about not speaking up for my own parental voice, for my own kids.”

A short time later, the New Hanover County Educational Justice group held a press conference.

Their opinion is the school board should follow the guidance of the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit, which was updated last week by state health officials to align with CDC guidance. It reads that all schools should, “require all children and staff in schools K-12th grade to wear face coverings consistently when indoors.”

“We’re worried that if masks are not required that we will see a significant amount of learning loss and increase number of quarantines and we want to prevent that,” said Sandy Eyles, a NHC Educational Justice member and NHCS parent.

When it came to the benefits of keeping students in the classroom and out of quarantine, the group during its press conference pointed to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics and ABC Science Collaborative.

“I think that we should be following the experts and not unqualified public opinion,” Eyles said.

WECT covered the parents’ choice rally and then moved to cover the NHC Educational Justice rally, which had set up on the other side of the Board of Education Center parking lot.

Things got tense when members of the parents’ choice rally surrounded the Educational Justice group during its news conference.

That’s when Barnhart and several others decided to step away from the rally, calling out to the large majority of the parents’ choice group, “they get there time, we get our time — be respectful.”

The crowd surrounding the press conference shouted and talked through a large portion of Eyles’ prepared comments. At one point causing her to pause and yell over the crowd, “Excuse me — feel free to talk after but let me get through. Show respect.”

“We are frustrated by the intimidation tactics of the group behind us,” said Eyles before the press conference started. “We did not make a public event on Facebook on purpose because we did want to keep this small.”

Eyles sent out a statement later Monday evening that read in part, “I wanted to personally make a statement about what happened tonight and how saddened I am that some members of the public chose to harass, attempt to intimidate and be physically aggressive with us. I was slapped on the back, our podium was kicked and other members of our group were physically slapped and pushed as well. We planned a peaceful press conference in order to make a statement to the media in support of mask wearing in our schools.”

Barnhart also reached out Monday evening to apologize that some individuals got mouthy and that she did not appreciate disrespect.

The press conference ultimately ended after Eyles wrapped up her comments, and the group said they had safety concerns.

“We will call this meeting to an end due to the safety of our citizens. Thank you,” one member with NHC Educational Justice said into the microphone before the group started to clean up its podium and speaker.

Organizers of the parents’ choice rally rescheduled the group’s rally to be at 4:30 p.m. Monday evening rather than Tuesday evening after hearing about the press conference, adding they wanted the other side to be represented prior to tomorrow’s vote.

The New Hanover County NAACP, Branch 5424, said it sent a request to the NHC Board of Education and Superintendent Charles Foust.

“The New Hanover County NAACP urges the Board of Education and the NHCS administration to require that all staff and students wear masks when schools reopen. While returning to in person instruction is critical to providing an equitable and excellent education for all our children, so is protecting the health of our students, our teachers and our community,” the request reads in part. It continues on to say “Wearing a mask should not be seen as an infringement on an individual’s freedom, but rather as an affirmation of the importance of community and a commitment to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’. It should be a teachable moment, where students can see their education is about more than learning facts or figures.”

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