Wake County will continue to require face masks to be worn in schools, amid debate over whether the face masks are harming the mental health of some students.
The Wake County School Board voted unanimously this week to maintain the face mask mandate after citing peak of COVID-19 cases in the community of the omicron variant. The vote came after several public speakers called for face coverings with mental health issues some students are experiencing.
“The dehumanization, isolation and fear brought on by all of these mandates and COVID hysteria are literally killing our children,” Colleen Fleming, a parent, told the school board on Tuesday. “Understand this: each of you is an accomplice in the deterioration of the mental health and well-being of our school children and the drop in their academic achievement. “
School board vice president Chris Heagarty objected to accusations by critics of the masks.
“It is implied, however, that masks are kind of the problem and that this national state of mental health emergency is tied into our mask policies,” Heagarty said. “And it is not.”
Face masks have been mandatory in Wake since students began returning for in-person instruction in October 2020. But unlike last school year, the decision now rests with local school districts to continue to require masks.
A new state law requires monthly votes on school district masking policies.
National mental health emergency
The question of whether to continue demanding face masks has sparked heated public comment at school board meetings in Wake and across the country.
Several speakers on Tuesday cited a CDC study that found that a 51% increase in emergency room visitss for suspected suicide attempts by girls aged 12 to 17. Other speakers highlighted how the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.
“He says he hates school and he hates his life,” Jessica Lewis said of her son. “He is 7 years old. He has a hard time finding joy in school due to social distancing and being reprimanded if his mask is not properly put on.”
Her daughter, Caitlynn Lewis Honeycutt, a 4th grader, told the board the school is no longer fun because of the masks. The district did not approve the request for a mask exemption for her brother.
“When I wear a mask, I feel like I can’t breathe,” Caitlynn said. “My mask makes me dizzy and disgusted because it is wet. My mask gives me a headache and makes me throw up at school.
While most in-person speakers opposed the mask’s mandate, many of the written comments submitted to council supported retaining the requirement.
“Please keep the masking rule in place,” wrote Stephanie Hall, a parent. “This is the easiest and simplest mitigation measure. My 7 year old loves his mask and my two kids forget to take it off when I pick them up.
“They are old enough to understand the rules and how it helps themselves and others.”
Masks as a tool for protecting students
School board members argued that requiring face masks would help reduce cases of COVID so students don’t miss school.
“Masks are a tool,” said Jim Martin, board member. “They are not a guarantee. But we have to use all the tools at our disposal right now. “
Heagarty, the board member, said critics of the masks fail to recognize that Wake and the state are taking mental health issues seriously and trying to address them.
Heagarty and other board members also acknowledged that the pandemic has had a negative impact on students.
“Children have suffered from this pandemic in a way that will resonate,” said Christine Kushner, board member. “It behooves us to pay special attention to it, and I think we are paying so much attention to it.”
Keep schools open
Board members also said that maintaining the mask’s tenure will help keep schools open for in-person instruction.
“I don’t think anyone on this board is arguing for the school to be closed,” Kushner said. “We saw what it looks like.
“We saw what the cohorts look like. We know that in-person education should be our goal for as many children who choose to be in-person education. “
Martin also said he was not calling for schools to be closed. But he said Wake should now plan to release a large number of staff and students in the coming weeks due to the omicron variant.
“I would like us to put something in place very seriously – and as quickly as possible – so that people who have a genuine concern are not forced to put their children in a setting where the probability of infection is quite high.” , said Martin.
Kristin Beller, president of the Wake County chapter of the NC Association of Educators, said the district can help keep schools open by ramping up COVID testing and putting N95 masks in the hands of staff.
“I’m not asking you to close schools because educators don’t want that to happen,” Beller said. “We want to support open schools. “
This story was originally published 6 January 2022 6:15 a.m.