Brunswick County School Board votes to mandate masks for students, clears out audience

Published: Aug. 10, 2021 at 1:29 AM EDT
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SHALLOTTE, N.C. (WECT) - The Brunswick County Board of Education voted in favor of requiring all students and unvaccinated staff to wear masks to begin the 2021-22 school year. Staff who are vaccinated will be given the choice on whether they mask up or not.

“The infection rate is so high right now and we’re looking for hopefully a short term masking situation, but we just thought the safest thing right now was to go ahead and mask,” said chairman Ed Lemon. “Ultimately we’re still responsible for student safety and their learning, so the best way to do that, of course, face-to-face with the teacher and keeping them in school.”

This vote came after audience members were escorted out by school resource officers.

The board first presented the results of a survey sent out to parents and staff, which indicated a majority of parents and staff who took the survey were in favor of not requiring masks inside schools.

The crowd started to get loud after a representative from the health department updated the board on the state of Covid-19 in the county, ultimately stating the department supported the board voting in favor of requiring masks within schools.

Chairman Ed Lemon ultimately decided to clear the room because the audience “wouldn’t adhere to the rules of the meeting.”

“We had already had public comment and at that point for people to be yelling out in the meeting and continuing to do that left us no choice,” Lemon said. “We decided the only way to complete this whole thing was just to remove everybody because we didn’t know who was doing the yelling and who wasn’t.”

Not all school board members were in favor of removing the entire audience.

“I don’t agree with clearing the whole room. I wish that we would have just asked the people who were being loud and talking out of turn to leave. There was a lot of people in this room who were here for the right reason and actually I believe everybody was here for the right reasons it’s a very emotional time for everybody,” said vice-chairman Steven Barger.

Members of the audience were upset after getting cleared out of the meeting. Several said they were more upset that Lemon told some to “shut up.”

“It’s offensive, so I felt that Ed Lemon’s response telling an audience member to “shut up” was extremely offensive. They are elected officials that we put in office. They work for us,” said Stephanie Hall, a Brunswick County Schools parent.

Following the meeting, Lemon said he was not apologetic at all, adding “when people are yelling, disrupting the meeting I don’t feel bad at all about telling them to shut up.”

Hall is in favor of parent’s choice, but thought a compromise could have been met.

“If you feel that masks somehow help then fine — in high-traffic areas, when they’re on the bus, when they’re changing classes, when they’re going to the bathroom, but when they’re sitting at their desks learning for the day or they’re outside participating in sports in the open air they should not have to wear masks,” Hall said.

Other parents like Machelle Williams were hopeful the board would vote in favor of masking up to keep kids in the classroom and out of quarantine.

“Ensuring our students have face-to-face instruction with teachers in the classroom and right now the guidance is clear and that is when students are masked if there is a positive case as long as the students are asymptomatic they do not need to quarantine. However, if the children are unmasked or if the positive case is unmasked then the students need to quarantine for up to 14 days and currently there is no remote learning option,” Williams said.

The quarantine rules outlined by the state are ultimately why Barger voted in favor of requiring masks. While he is in favor of “freeing the smiles” and letting parents choose, he ultimately wants students to spend as little time in quarantine as possible.

“Last year we all fought to keep kids in school and I want to make sure that we’re doing that this year. Unfortunately, the toolkit that we got from the State Board of Education from the governor puts a lot more kids into quarantine, takes a lot more kids out of the classroom if we don’t mask them,” Barger said. “A couple weeks ago I was in Raleigh fighting for ‘Free the Smiles’ — I still want to free their smiles I don’t like wearing the mask, I don’t want to make these kids wear the mask, but the unfortunate truth right now is the fact that the toolkit is going to make us take more kids out of the classroom as you heard tonight.”

Students who play indoor sports will not have to mask up while actively playing, but will need to mask up while sitting on the sideline. Masks will not be required at all for outdoor sports.

Similar to New Hanover County, the school board will reevaluate this decision every month based on the data and will unmask when it is safe to do so.

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