The Cumberland County Board of Education on Tuesday voted 5-4 to make face masks optional in schools starting Feb. 16.
Until Tuesday’s vote, masks had been mandatory inside schools. The board is required by state law to vote on the mask policy each month.
There is a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention law that requires that masks be worn at all times on yellow school buses and on activity buses.
Voting to make face masks optional were board members Nathan Warfel, Susan Williams, Alicia Chisolm, Donna Vann and Chairman Greg West
Carrie Sutton, Deanna Jones, Charles McKellar and Judy Musgrave voted against a change in the policy.
The decision came on the heels of a public hearing where three of the seven speakers spoke against the mandatory face mask policy.
“It is time to end the mask mandate,” Alicia Thomas told the board. “States all over the country have decided to make masks optional for their schools. And they need to be optional in Cumberland County Schools, as well. If masks were going to work, they would have done so long before now.
“I implore you to look to Florida, a few hundred miles from here,” Thomas said, “as an example of a state that has done an excellent job with allowing their citizens to exercise their constitutional freedom of choice regarding masks. Children in Florida have been in-person in school since August of 2020. And they have had optional masks since August of 2021.”
She said, "We must put an end to this type of oppression and stop allowing fear-based decisions to limit the freedom of the people. Wearing a mask or not should be up to the individual.”
Before the meeting, Thomas became irritated when she was told she was required to wear a face mask inside the meeting room. She called it an invasion of her rights and privacy as an American citizen.
Natalia Frias, who identified herself as a school nurse, said while working with children on a daily basis she sees dirty masks.
“The CDC stated recently that these are only 56% effective,” she said of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “A study by the Department of Bioscience Engineering at a university in Belgium also found that cloth masks should not be worn for over four hours. Our children wear them for eight hours or longer if they’re in a daycare or after-school program.”
Ava White, a parent of a third-grader, urged the board to make masks optional.
Children, who are told not to be hugging or touching, need love and affection, she said.
“I ask that the mask mandate be made optional,” White said. “I understand and respect that there are parents who still want their children to wear masks. And that truly is OK. Because that right there is our freedom of choice, part of our rights as American citizens.”
Board members expressed differing opinions on whether face masks should be optional or mandatory in Cumberland County Schools.
Initially, Sutton made a motion to approve the continuation of mandatory masks with McKellar seconding the motion. That motion failed by a 5-4 vote.
Warfel then made the motion to make masks optional with the policy to start on Feb. 16. Vann seconded the motion.
Did the board understand that the infection rate in Cumberland County today now stands at almost 40% and that "our hospital is overran right now?" Sutton countered.
“No, it’s not! No, it’s not!” a woman among the approximately 30 people in attendance in the room shouted.
“This is an irresponsible decision to remove these masks right now,” Sutton said. “I’m just asking that we reconsider for the well-being of our people that work for us. That’s in those rooms every day.”
The woman again spoke up. “That’s what optional masking is,” she said.
“Ma'am, you cannot speak,” Sutton said.
“I got you, Miss Sutton,” West said.
He later told the woman that she could be removed when she continued to interrupt.
“This is very, very important,” Sutton continued. “I just lost a friend to this virus. I have a friend who is suffering from it. And those of you who can’t think of anyone but yourself …”
“Are you serious?” the woman then shouted.
“... What type of human being are you?” Sutton said, completing the thought. “And I’m asking us to reconsider this vote right now.”
Williams said the school numbers of infected students were cut in half last week. “Our numbers in the county are about 47,000 students,” she added. “And there were about 400 students who tested positive. So you do the math on that. I do believe that if a teacher wants to wear a mask, they can. I do believe many will. But I believe that some will not.”
At this point, Williams said, "If those numbers come back, we can always reverse it. But right now, I think it’s the thing to do.”
Vann concurred, saying that she had remained on the fence about the policy. She said she has been an advocate for the mask.
“But it appears to me as long as it has gone on,” she said, “that you’re going to get COVID whether you’ve worn a mask or not. People have been careful and still gotten it; people who have not been careful have not gotten it. Times have changed, and it’s been almost three years, 2 ½ years, since COVID came about.
“I’m tired of running scared,” she said.
Michael Futch covers Fayetteville and education for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at email@example.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.