Only handful of school districts remain mask optional, one is pushing back

Yancey County School Board chair pushes back against Cooper’s 'intimidating,’ 'coercive' letter

Gov. Roy Cooper briefs media at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh. Photo via N.C. Dept. of Public Safety

RALEIGH — Only a handful of the 64 North Carolina school districts that originally voted to make masks optional for K-12 students for the upcoming year are still following that policy.

As of Sept. 6, the school districts continuing mask-optional policies are Avery, Camden, Onslow, Polk Union and Yancey counties, as well as Newton-Conover City Schools. There are a total of 115 school districts in the state.

Most of the reversals came after a letter was sent urging mask-optional districts to reverse course despite updates to the StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit giving districts the choice of making masks optional.

The letter was issued and signed by Gov. Roy Cooper, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) Secretary Mandy Cohen and State Health Director Dr. Betty Tilson.

Cooper’s letter urges districts to “fully implement” the toolkit and to employ masks despite being a “recommended” option and the final decision left to each district.

“Because children under 12 cannot yet get the vaccine and the percent of children 12-18 years old who are vaccinated is low, all students, teachers and staff in grades K-12 should wear a mask,” Cooper’s letter reads.

Cooper said the urgency is due to “rapidly increasing spread” attributed to the Delta variant and “increasing rates of infection in children.”

Yancey County Schools is one of the few remaining districts that is mask optional, and the board’s chairman, Edwin Fortner, penned a letter rebuking Cooper’s letter.

Fortner noted the small number of cases and quarantined students in the district, as well issues with the StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit, which he said is “exhaustive and reaches into areas of legalities that require legal counsel.”

“The issue that has been created over the requiring of masks or making them optional has divided those of us among the community,” Fortner’s letter reads. “At most, we have students and staff 40 hours a week. For the remaining 120 hours per week, we have no control over travel, vacation, athletic activities outside of school, or personal choices.”

Fortner then described the letter he received from Cooper, calling it intimidating and coercive.

“Upon receiving a personal letter from Gov. Roy Cooper, I have chosen to publicly share the intimidating and coercive nature of his letter towards us for the decision that we unanimously made,” Fortner wrote.

The Yancey school board chair also said that Cooper was offloading his duties onto local school boards.

“You direct the path of this state 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at this point in time,” Fortner wrote. “Yet Gov. Cooper, because of the negativity you experienced by mandating masks statewide, closing public schools, ceasing all athletic activities, and financially destroying local businesses, you are neglecting your duties and placing them on the shoulders of local school boards.”

“I will not attempt to intimidate or coerce board members to abandon their convictions. We are elected to represent the people of Yancey County solely,” wrote Fortner in closing. “For these reasons, Mr. Cooper, I will not attempt to assume your elected duties. While you may not agree with my decision, I do ask this one thing. Please continue to pray for Yancey County Schools.”

NCDHHS’ most recent school and childcare clusters report posted prior to the Labor Day holiday weekend shows one cluster in Yancey County at Genesis Academy, which is a private non-profit Christian school and not a K-12 Public School as NCDHHS has labeled it. Of note, the cases in the NCDHHS school cluster the report “represent the cumulative number of cases during the cluster and do not necessarily represent active cases.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as of Aug. 25, 2021, a total of 385 children ages 0-17 have died of COVID in the United States. For the same age range and time period, 887 have died from pneumonia.

The number of positive tests in North Carolina children ages 0-17 is 168,593 or just under 14% of all cases in the state to date.  The dashboard demographics view also shows a total of 5 total deaths for children of that age range, none of which have been attributed to schools.

Hospitalization of children ages 0-17 between Oct. 1, 2020, and Aug. 31, 2021, has been very low — registering statistically between 0 and 1%, even in recent weeks.

About A.P. Dillon 494 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_