Public speakers fill school board meeting with comments on masks as rules change for athletes

Published 12:05 am Tuesday, August 24, 2021

SALISBURY – The Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education on Monday loosened mask rules for athletes after a lengthy public comment period wherein speakers focused almost entirely on masks.

Brian Hightower made the motion, which was approved unanimously, to allow students on indoor courts to not wear masks while playing. Masks are still required in crowds and on the sidelines. Hightower said it’s hard to be competitive while wearing a mask.

Hightower’s motion was the only action on masking after a lengthy public comment period during which speakers focused almost exclusively on the issue. There were more than two dozen people who spoke to the board — both for and against the mandate that is in place through Aug. 31.

Some of those opposed to mask wearing claimed there is no evidence for the effectiveness of masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites more than 10 studies pointing to decreased infection rate and mortality when universal masking is in place.

Others claimed the board overstepped its authority by mandating masks as recommended by the state. Several speakers called masks muzzles.

There were also references to spiritual warfare, scripture, that variants of the disease are manufactured, the only way to fight a virus is through “natural immunity” and that board’s mask mandate is child abuse. One man opened his comments by playing part of a country song over the microphone.

Another popular talking point was that it’s a personal choice to wear a mask. People should feel safe if they choose to wear one, some speakers said. Others suggested canceling quarantines.

Quarantines are ordered by local health departments under the purview of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The school board deliberately defying quarantine orders would be illegal. Someone is considered exposed if they are within 6 feet of someone who tests positive for at least 15 minutes. An exception introduced this month allows students to be exempted from quarantine if both the student who tests positive and those who were in close contact with them were wearing masks.

There were 1,878 student quarantines on Friday. Chief Student Services Officer April Kuhn said there were 269 staff vacancies that day, and 54% of those were filled by substitute management company Kelly Education.

People who spoke in favor of masks said they were concerned about the safety of children and pointed to social responsibility.

Rev. Nilous Avery, pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, said he and people he disagreed with on the mask issue helped one another down the steps from the overflow room to speak.

“We were able to be human,” Avery said.

Avery said society has been created for the common good and people have a mutual responsibility to be good citizens.

“We are free to decide and do what we feel is best for us, and in some cases, we do as we wish as long as our deciding and doing does not harm or endanger another person,” Avery said.

Avery said people can learn to agree to disagree, but responsibility is a duty for the common good. Fairness is making sure people are accountable to one another, he said.

“Putting the lives of our children, precious gifts and treasures, in harm’s way is not worth it,” Avery said.

Nathan Morrow, a parent, was among those against masks. He told the board the changing policies are frustrating and his family does not have other options.

Dustin Dean, another parent who spoke against masking, said nobody knows exactly what is right. Dean said he was happy when the board initially decided to leave the decision up to parents.

Board member Dean Hunter questioned the logic of mask requirements in school when students are free to do otherwise elsewhere.

Board member Brian Hightower said the bottom line is that students are able to stay in schools when they wear masks.

Superintendent Tony Watlington recommended the board extend the mandate until its next meeting or the end of the quarter to give parents some clarity on what will be required. No motion was made on the issue.