Editorial: Four school board members deserve praise for mask vote

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 19, 2021

The Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education and, in particular, the four school board members who voted to make masks mandatory deserve praise for choosing to prioritize student health and well-being.

By voting for masks, Alisha Byrd-Clark, Kevin Jones, Jean Kennedy and Brian Hightower took a small and important step toward ensuring students stay in class five days per week for the entire year and voted for a reasonable precaution to slow the spread of COVID-19 — putting a piece of cloth in front of your mouth. Schools do not have the ability to social distance with full classrooms.

Travis Allen and Dean Hunter voted against the mask mandate.

Just one week into the 2021-2022 year, there are hundreds of quarantines and dozens of positive tests among students and teachers. That numbers haven’t reached last year’s peak is irrelevant because RSS is just one week into the school year. The numbers aren’t going to decrease as students interact with each other unmasked and mostly unvaccinated.

When RSS reached its peak one year ago, former Superintendent Lynn Moody was considering whether to recommend closing school buildings.

As one of the largest employers in the county, an entity entrusted with the well-being of 18,000 children for hours at a time and a recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding, Rowan-Salisbury Schools must be cautious amid a global pandemic. That means taking prudent steps to fulfill the right to a free and equitable education in person for as long as possible.

The alternative, as staff and school board members spoke about during Wednesday’s meeting, is that schools become a source for COVID-19 spread and so many staff become sick and quarantined that substitute teachers cannot fill gaps. Then, parents and school board members will complain about having to return to virtual learning, which wasn’t an effective learning method for so many students.

The swing vote on Wednesday, Hightower recognized the importance of keeping schools open. He may face criticism from close friends, acquaintances and family members, but he deserves praise for providing exactly what the public needs in an elected official. He asked tough questions, considered differing opinions and voted based on what’s best for the welfare of students and educators.

Parents may complain about masks not working when cases continue to rise, but it’s important to remember that schools are a reflection of the community. The community RSS serves hasn’t taken the virus as seriously as others in North Carolina, which is proven by its spot in the top eight for COVID-19 deaths despite being 20th in population. Masks also aren’t a panacea. They must be combined with vaccinations, social distancing and cleanliness to truly stop the spread. Because RSS cannot control what happens outside of its buildings, its goal should be for schools to contribute to virus spread as little as possible. If a mask only stops five of 10 droplets containing virus, it’s worth it.

The crowd advocating for the freedom to shun masks is embracing a selfish, false equivalence. The freedom in this case carries the possibility of infecting another person with a dangerous virus. Students, parents and educators who prefer to live to the end of the pandemic in good health shouldn’t have that desire threatened by those who are ready to embrace a sense of fatalism.