RANDOLPH COUNTY — Two weeks after the Randolph County Board of Education tabled a vote on whether to maintain mask requirements in public county schools, members will determine the fate of its mandate Monday.
At the behest of chairman Gary Cook, the board voted earlier this month to postpone a vote until November, by which time he said he hopes the health department will have had time to compile additional data. Cook addressed residents and board members with what he said were his own words, meant to represent no one but himself in what he described as a difficult time to be on the school board.
“Since August, I have found myself playing a role I totally dislike. We were told if children wear a cloth face covering universally, only the positive go home and children can stay in school,” Cook said. “I find the mask very uncomfortable, and like many of you, I find it hard to believe they actually work. I voted for them to keep kids in school. I’ve never been into playing anyone’s game, but I decided kids in school were worth it.”
Cook could represent a swing vote in determining whether children will continue to be required to wear face coverings in classrooms. During the September meeting of Randolph County’s school board, members voted 4-3 to reinstate for another month its policy to require face coverings on school campuses.
State legislation dictates that school boards must determine monthly how it moves forward with mask mandates. Senate Bill 654, which was signed into law earlier this year, requires that each school district adopt a mask policy and to revisit that policy at each month’s regular meeting.
Cook said he has begun to have reservations about voting again in favor of mandating masks.
“For the past two months and a half, I feel like a hypocrite,” said Cook, who was one of four to vote in favor of the mandate, which he said should be left up to the state government. “I’m asking someone to do something I only do in this room, wear a mask. I get it. It should not be the decision of this board.”
The mask requirement, which was first implemented during an emergency meeting Aug. 29, came after a spike in COVID-19 cases and the continual danger associated with the delta variant. It marked a reversal from the board’s initial decision to start the new academic year with masks optional when more than 380 students and staff in the county school district had to quarantine during the first week of classes.
Since that time, case numbers have declined and the attitudes toward what precautions are necessary have also changed for some.
“I just can no longer defend wearing a mask at school, but taking it off playing daycare, in the neighborhood, sporting events, etc.,” Cook said. “I cannot play that game anymore. Stadium seats are full and, my gosh, they’re having the state fair in Raleigh. You know, they must think we’re idiots.
“We’re being bullied, and you guys are right. We’ve got to take our country back and keep fighting for what we believe.”
Many of those in attendance erupted into raucous applause and some could be heard shouting that they have the chairman’s back.
The initial recommendation by Superintendent Stephen Gainey to go with the mask requirement has drawn the ire of many in the county, several of whom have interrupted meetings during Gainey’s report to the board. Cook has asked residents who attend the meetings to be less disruptive, suggesting they could be removed if their outbursts persist.
He also let it be known that he shares some of their opinions, particularly as it pertains to the N.C. Strong Schools Toolkit, guidelines provided by the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My thinking on the toolkit is that it’s a fantasy toolbox with whatever whoever pulls out of it at any time, but we’re supposed to follow it and believe it,” Cook said. “I would like for this board to consider tabling this thing for two weeks. If we can table this and give the leadership at the health department time to get prepared to do their job, whatever they need to do.
“But when we come back, if we can live with it for two more weeks, I want to come back in and I’m changing my direction. I’m going to vote for mask optional.”
Staff writer Daniel Kennedy can be reached at 336-888-3578, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.