Diane Peltz – Contributing Writer
When the Macon County School Board realized just how many parents wanted to speak at its board meeting last Monday, a decision was made to hold the meeting at the courthouse in order to accommodate the large crowd. Just a few hours before the meeting was to begin, the Health Department issued a warning that it would be too dangerous to have such a large group in one place, so at 1 p.m., on the day of the meeting, it was moved to a virtual meeting and live streamed for the public to view. Several folks had not received the schedule change and showed up at the courthouse to find the meeting there was cancelled. Jim Gaston and Mike Green were two Macon County residents who wanted their voices to be heard by the school board. The group was upset at the last minute change, which did not give them time to email their letters. The school board had received many letters from parents and citizens about whether or not mask wearing should be optional or mandated. Gaston, father of two school age children wanted to share his concerns.
He cited various studies conducted over the past year and a half regarding the questionable efficacy of masks, and to look closely at the success the country of Sweden has had by not hitting the panic button and not requiring masks, vaccines, and “all the other nonsense that only makes the situation worse.”
“Even the CDC in the height of the fear during May 2020 released an extensive study in their Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases stating unequivocally that face masks do NOT stop the spread of COVID and should not be relied on to do so. Furthermore, over 90% of positive cases from last year reported wearing masks on a regular basis, so along with the proven studies, common sense tells us that masks do not work. … People contracting these current coronaviruses have a 99.8% chance of full recovery, so we need to stop worrying about case numbers and get back to living life instead of believing the sky is falling.
“I am in support of teachers and students having a choice in their personal well-being for this upcoming school year and beyond,” said Gaston. “As a father and taxpayer in Macon County, I strongly appeal to you NOT to mandate masks in the public school system. Wearing masks will only intensify the stress and anxiety teachers already face on a daily basis. Forcing students to were masks (which will be inconsistent at best) would be a totally insane idea that will cause emotional and psychological harm to these kids. We already saw the negative effects of masks last year on student’s emotional stability, so don’t make the same mistake again.”
More than two dozen letters were read by School Board Lawyer John Henning which had been submitted via email before the start of the meeting. The majority of concerned parents, teachers, substitutes and residents were against mask mandates. Many letters cited the statistics stating masks don’t work and the fact that many children come to class with the same dirty mask day after day. Other factors revolved around the anxiety masks cause children and the fact that not being able to see facial expressions or to clearly understand what teachers were saying causes students to shut down and stop asking questions. Danny Moss, a substitute teacher at Highlands School, spoke about how masks tortured the students. He stated that throughout the day students were reminded to pull their mask over their nose, not to touch another student, keep six feet apart and no socializing. He reiterated that fact that students couldn’t always understand what a teacher was saying and so they shut down mentally and physically.
Not everyone was against mask mandates. A handful of letters asked to please mandate masks in schools. Most folks taking this position cited the more contagious Delta variant and how it affects more young children than did the previous strain. Other parents spoke about their child being “high risk” and implored the board to implement the mask mandates. Still others spoke about the fact that children under 12 could not be vaccinated so they would be at a higher risk of contracting the Delta variant.
Representative Madison Cawthorn appeared virtually before the board and spoke about the bureaucrats in Raleigh who want to enforce their will on citizens. He stated that he was representing a group of concerned parents. He asked to stop politicizing our children and that the variant is much less lethal than the flu. He wants to give the power back to school board. He also stated that we don’t answer to the government and they can’t arrest all of us.
Dr. Baldwin, Macon Schools Superintendent stated that as of today there are 207 active cases with 18 students and 57 teachers who are in quarantine. If school was to start today they would need 27 subs.
Kathy McGaha, Macon County Health Administrator, spoke to the board about the changes in cases from two weeks ago.
“Just last week our positivity rate was at 35% and today it is at 51%.” She stated that the Delta variant is different than last year and also different from December. There is more of the viral load in patients and more younger people are being admitted to the hospital. The protocol is also different this time. Teachers who have been exposed to a positive child for a cumulative total of 15 minutes would have to be quarantined even if they were wearing a mask, if they were unvaccinated.
Board chairman Jim Breedlove stated throughout the meeting that the main focus was to keep children safe. He said that some folks had been threatened, which shows how strongly people feel. He explained that he hoped everyone understands that we need to vote our conscience. With that he asked each board member to tell how they feel regarding the mask mandate.
Tommy Cabe was the first to speak. He stated that he had traveled the country all summer and never wore a mask. Some members of his family got COVID. He was tested for COVID in Hawaii and tested positive but 45 minutes later, after paying $150 to get his nose “poked” again he was negative. He stated that he didn’t want anyone to die or get sick, no one died of the flu, where did that go? He felt that in his heart he wants to give people the right to decide.
Carol Arnold, long time educator and administrator said she didn’t want to see anyone get sick. She said that mothers are looking out for their children and her decision to mandate masks in school is based on data. She agreed with McGaha.
Board member Hillary Wilkes said she spoke with dozens of teachers and faculty members who were on board with mask mandates.
“Everyone on the board cares deeply about the students and teachers,” said Wilkes. She expressed her incredulity that the positivity rate jumped 13% in such a short amount of time. She said if masks will keep kids safe in school she is for the mandate.
Melissa Evans said that she truly respects everyone.
We are a divided country,” she noted. “We are 50/50.” She said she was a mother and as a mother she feels, “I would not put a mask on my child. If you want to find a reason to put a mask on a child you will find it, if you want to find a reason not to, you may find it.” She went on to say, “I would rather not be here tonight. As a mother I would not force my child to wear a mask. Suicide is horrendous and I don’t want to be a part of that. We have options. Don’t cause them to go through what they went through last year.” She said she will not vote for mandatory mask wearing.
The board took a vote and by a 3-2 margin masks were mandated for the beginning of school next Monday. Breedlove reiterated this was a temporary measure and the board will relook at the statistics next Monday, Aug. 23, at another called board meeting. A statement released from the central office on Tuesday provided details regarding when masks would be required. “Face coverings are required inside school facilities and school transportation. Face coverings will not be required outside, or during vigorous physical activity. The face coverings mandate will be re-evaluated weekly.”