ROCKY MOUNT — Two days before public school begins in Franklin County, the school board changed its mask requirement policy in a way that left a back door open for those who don’t want it to be mandatory for children.
Masks will required for all students, but exemptions will be allowed for medical or religious reasons without need for any proof to be provided. The motion offered by Union Hall District Representative P.D. Hambrick at Monday’s school board meeting passed unanimously after intense debate and three failed proposals.
A motion by Snow Creek Representative G. B. Washburn that would have created waivers for parents to sign who did not want their kids to wear masks failed on a 4-4 tie vote. A motion by Gills Creek member Jon Atchue to simply adopt school Superintendent Bernice Cobbs’ recommendation and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines also failed 4-4.
Following a round of passionate public comment from 15 speakers, most of whom opposed making mask-wearing mandatory for children, Cobbs presented a recommendation that masks be required for all students, staff and visitors, in light of a state directive that school districts must adhere to CDC protocols.
During the debate that followed, school district attorney Steve Maddy told the the board that he could not recommend countermanding state Senate Bill 1303 — a law passed with bipartisan support and effective until August 2022 that mandates mask-wearing under the new CDC guidelines.
Boone District Representative Donna Cosmato and Blackwater District Representative Arlet Greer argued for leaving in place the board’s July 26 decision to make mask wearing the choice of parents.
Board Chair Julie Nix stated that Gov. Ralph Northam’s recent assertion that school districts had to follow CDC recommendations, after making statements for months that masking decisions would be up to each school board, puts Franklin County in an awkward position. Nonetheless, “We’ve got to obey the law.”
“If we don’t take this step, I fear that in October we will be virtual,” given the rising COVID-19 case numbers, Atchue said, arguing for a mask mandate.
Member-at-large Penny Blue asked Maddy if the board would be breaking state law if they left masks as a parental choice. Maddy replied, “That is correct.”
However, Director of Operations Jason Guilliams told the board that state law did not require parents who claimed religious or medical exemptions to mask-wearing to provide proof, which led to Hambrick’s motion, and applause from those in the crowd opposed to masks when it passed.