Despite a high countywide COVID-19 positivity rate and the COVID-related death of a beloved teacher and pastor the night before, Lincoln County Schools on Tuesday became the first Charlotte-area school system to make masks optional again.
In a 4-3 vote, board members also agreed to end most quarantining of students and staff, according to a Charlotte Observer review of a recording of the meeting on the school system’s YouTube channel. Contact tracing will remain the responsibility of the county health department, board members said at the meeting.
Lincoln rejoins Union County as one of the few N.C. school districts where masks will be optional. Lincoln County will switch back on Sept. 29, the board voted Tuesday.
Lincolnton, the county seat, is about 40 miles northwest of uptown Charlotte.
Lincoln County Board of Education Chairman Mark Mullen prevented two Atrium Health doctors who practice in the county from addressing the board before its vote.
He cited board policy that allows only county residents to speak during the public comments session of the board meetings.
Doctor defends masks
One of the doctors, Elisabeth Stoffel, told the Observer on Wednesday that she would have urged the board to keep masks mandatory. She emailed the Observer a copy of her planned three-minute address. She is a doctor at Atrium Health Primary Care One Health Family Medicine in Denver, N.C.
“Masks have unequivocally demonstrated that they prevent the spread of Covid-19 and are primarily responsible for the success of in-person learning during the pandemic,” according to part of Stoffel’s address.
The board members who voted to make masks optional again didn’t explain why before their votes. They didn’t reply to emailed requests for comment by the Observer on Wednesday.
The motion by board Vice Chairperson Heather Rhyne also requires students and staff to be at school unless they test positive for COVID-19 and are in isolation, or the county health department gives them a written quarantine order.
Two members who voted to keep masks mandatory cited the recommendations of doctors, including Dr. Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, chief medical officer of the state Department of Health and Human Services. The board invited Tilson to speak via Zoom during the meeting.
Todd Wulfhorst, the third member who voted to keep mask wearing in place, told the Observer that he
doesn’t like wearing masks, either.
“No one likes wearing masks,” the Denver, N.C., lawyer said. “But if the carrot is we don’t have to quarantine kids, I’m all for it,” he said.
Wulfhorst said he’s convinced the four who voted to make masks optional — Rhyne, Mullen, Christina Sutton and Tony Jenkins — knew beforehand how the vote would go. And for one or two of them, he said, “I truly believe it’s political.”
High positivity rate
Lincoln County Health Director David Madden cited the largely rural county’s 14.1% COVID positivity rate and more than 500 active COVID cases.
“We are still in an active, high rate of transmission as far as the delta variant,” Madden told the board.
“We are in a medical crisis,” one of the board members who wanted to keep masks mandatory told fellow members.
On Monday, 45-year-old Cruceta Jeffeirs, a beloved third-grade teacher at Battleground Elementary School in Lincolnton, died of complications from COVID, her daughter told WCNC. Jeffeirs also was a pastor at Bethel Ministries in Shelby.
Four parents urged the board Tuesday night to keep masks mandatory, while one speaker said they should be optional.
“This is for control,” Kevin Sanders of Iron Station said of mandatory mask-wearing, “Stop giving into fear and emotional decision making and start using logic and risk analysis. We can’t stop living because we’re worried about dying.”
“You need to listen to the doctors,” countered Iron Station resident Stacy Pattison. “Lincoln County students would suffer the consequences, with large numbers at home quarantining.”
Under a new North Carolina law, school boards must meet once a month to vote on mask mandates.