NEWLAND — Boards of education across the state of North Carolina are now required to revisit their COVID-19 protocols at each monthly meeting, but the Avery County BOE sits divided on the issue.
Some board members wore masks while others did not at the monthly board meeting on August 31, setting the tone for the evening that featured an honoring of first year teachers excelling throughout the pandemic, a well-attended public comments session and statements questioning the legitimacy of CDC and health department recommendations.
In a split decision with Greene as the tie-breaking vote, the board voted to approve a requirement for teachers to wear masks and to install plexiglass dividers in classrooms to address COVID-19.
Board member Kathey Aldridge said that she has researched online and believes that masks are detrimental to students, their ability to learn and their development of relationships. The board’s decision aligns with the notion that masks hinder students’ ability to learn and grow, and affirms that the board will try all other precautions before requiring masks.
Toe River Health District Director Diane Creek, who was not present at the meeting but as part of Avery County Health Department has overseen the department’s extensive collaboration with ACS regarding COVID-19 in the district, shared with The AJT that the health department, as well as the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit, unequivocally recommend universal mask wearing in schools.
Without wearing masks, Creek said, quarantine cases as well as COVID-19 cases in schools will not decrease, adding that having teachers masked and installing plexiglass are not effective solutions to decrease how many students must miss school due to quarantining.
“If parents want their kids to stay in school, their kids really need to be wearing masks,” Creek explained.
After the decision, Greene expressed his thoughts on COVID-19 and masks in an extended statement. Greene claimed that “85 percent of deaths” from COVID-19 were preventable with hydroxychloroquine, which the CDC has stated has been used in some cases to treat COVID-19 but is not FDA approved and presents considerable risks.
According to a CDC report released on July 1, its report finds “serious heart rhythm problems and other safety issues, including blood and lymph system disorders, kidney injuries, and liver problems and failure” associated with the use of hydroxychloroquine.
Greene compared wearing masks to “the Taliban requiring little girls to wear burqas,” arguing that the government and media are “whitewashing” treatments for COVID-19 and that alternatives to masks are “squelched” in these conversations. He also claimed that masks cause oxygen deprivation and force wearers to breathe in too much carbon dioxide.
Greene explained that this is why parental choice is important and reiterated his and the board’s consistent message that parents know their child’s health best and should be able to make their own decisions regarding masks.
Although the previous Avery BOE meeting featured exclusively parents sharing their wishes to not have masks mandated in schools, the latest meeting featuring different opinions.
Tiffiny Ledford first addressed the board, reading CDC recommendations for masking in school and asking why the board is not following CDC guidelines. She said that her son wears a mask in school, although he is vaccinated, to protect himself and others, as well as his 10-year-old sister who cannot get vaccinated, but that because he wears a mask he is being bullied.
“I hold the school board accountable for every positive COVID case in Avery County Schools,” Ledford said.
Greene responded to the Ledford that he “wasn’t aware (the Board of Education) is in control of COVID,” and that holding the members of the board accountable for COVID-19 cases in schools is unfair, noting that he, and most everybody else, was bullied in school, and that the principals of the schools should respond to these issues.
Ledford expressed dissatisfaction with the response following the meeting, stating that she felt it normalized bullying and that the board did not respond directly to her question regarding why ACS is not following CDC recommendations.
Michelle Pope, who also has children in Avery County Schools, said that she is concerned that masks are not required in ACS, particularly for the age groups and grades K-8 which cannot receive the vaccine. She said that Avery County is one of the few school districts in the state with no mask requirement despite increasing COVID-19 cases, and that it is the board’s responsibility to do “everything in your power to protect (the students).”
Pope said that her son is at particular risk for COVID-19 complications because he required heart surgery when he was only two years old. She likened masks to a food allergy, stating that at schools if there are students with peanut allergies other families avoid peanut butter for that child’s sake.
Jennifer Taylor, another parent, voiced her concern for the school system’s unclear options for immunocompromised students. While all classes in ACS have returned to in-person class, Taylor said that she has also seen elements of bullying in regard to mask wearing, but her main concern is that she would like more communication from ACS about options for students who cannot safely attend in-person classes, especially when masks are optional.
As of September 3, there were 22 active cases of students with COVID-19, one COVID-19 for staff and no cases for teachers. The quarantine numbers for September 3 were 123 students, four teachers and six staff members actively quarantining due to exposure to COVID-19.
Additionally during its meeting, the board took the opportunity to honor the district’s first-year teachers excelling in their roles.
Brenda Reese of the Delta Kappa Gamma, Alpha Gamma chapter of Avery County recognized first-year teachers starting their careers as educators during arguably one of the most challenging times to lead classrooms. Reese said everybody who received an award did so based on “word of mouth,” off of the recommendations of their peers and community who see their hard work and dedication to “go the extra mile” for each of their students.
The teachers honored included Joshua Gregory (ACHS-Physics), Hunter Starling (ACHS-Civics), Bethany Allen (AMS-ELA), Stephanie Eagle (AMS-Science), Kathryn Ezzelle (AMS-Band), Katie Stamey (AMS-Life Skills/OCS), Jenny Brewer (NES –Teacher), Imelda Cabrera (NES- Art) and Mike Jackson (NES-PE).
Per state regulation, the Avery Board of Education will reassess its COVID-19 protocols each month at its board meetings. The next meeting will be at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 12, at the Avery County Board of Education office, located at 775 Cranberry St. in Newland.
Marisa Mecke is a Report for America corps member for Mountain Times Publications. Report for America is a national nonprofit service program which places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.