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Despite threat of 'civil and criminal' action, School Board keeps mask mandate

Beth Campbell declared "that we the people of Western North Carolina" would take 'civil and criminal' action if the School Board did not drop facemasks. Beth Campbell declared "that we the people of Western North Carolina" would take 'civil and criminal' action if the School Board did not drop facemasks.

School Board members received expressions of gratitude and a threat of "civil and criminal" litigation on Tuesday before voting 5-2 to continue the mask mandate in Henderson County's public schools.

Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with "We the People of WNC," Beth Campbell declared herself "a North Carolina citizen for constitutional rights" and demanded the School Board drop the face covering mandate or suffer legal action.

"We the people of Western North Carolina and Henderson County have tried to give you every opportunity to do the right thing and end these mask mandates and the unlawful quarantine that has been going on in our schools," she said. "We're asking you one final time to please do the right thing because we're not really sure how aware you are of what you have been doing to these kids and are you sure you haven't made a huge mistake."

She implored the board to drop the mask mandate and quarantines "and don't even bring up the idea of vaccine mandates in the future. It's not going to work.

"We the people will hold each and every one of you individually and as a whole including Mr. superintendent and Mr. Steve Smith criminally and civilally liable," she said. "You may think that we're just a bunch of angry soccer moms but we've done our research and angry scary soccer moms don't like being bullied."

"We the people includes me," Katy Gash told the board, "and the previous speaker did not speak on my behalf."

A math teacher at Hendersonville Middle School, Gash said she is working harder than she has ever worked and like her coworkers is exhausted and stressed out. "But what keeps me going is my kids," she said. "We are finally in the classroom together for an extended period of time. I teach 110 students every day and we are in this together. We wear a mask to protect the least of these among us. The vast majority of my students wear a mask regularly, appropriately, without issue and without complaint."

After making a modest concession for young children taking phonics — starting Monday K-3 children and their teachers can remove masks during the letter-sound-forming instruction — the board voted 5-2 to keep the mask mandate, with Vice Chair Amy Lynn Holt and Jay Egolf voting no.

Board Chair Blair Craven announced at the top of the meeting that in e-mailed comments, 45 people supported keeping the mask mandate as and seven urged the board to end it. One writer urged the board to remove Stacey Caskey, who has called out anti-mask speakers for bad behavior, one was in support of Caskey, another wanted to "unmask kids and remove Stacy Caskey" and finally one writer described herself "anti-mask, anti-quarantine, anti-hypocrisy and anti-fake science."

In public comment time, anti-mask forces were matched by those who urged the board to continue the mask requirement.

Describing herself "a mother of four, business owner, registered unaffiliated voter, taxpayer, property owner and community supporter here in Henderson County," Sarah Cosgrove rose to "express my sincere gratitude for your continued commitment for the safe and high-quality education for the children of Henderson County. I also have several auto-immune diseases and my child has asthma." She supports face coverings because they remain "an effective solution (for in-person education) until those who desire to can vaccinate."

"There are not enough words," Sarah Smith told the board, "to express the gratitude many of us feel for your service during these complicated times."

Courtney McCall noted that statistics at Tuesday's Board of Health meeting showed that of 659 quarantined students, 251 ended up testing positive for Covid. But only 46 of those contracted Covid at school. "Clearly we don't have a need for this much quarantining so I'm not sure why we're not changing it," McCall said.

Aaron Fishler, an respiratory therapist at Mission HCA, said a recent CDC study had shown the effectiveness of masks.

"All three reports (in the study) showed that school districts that allowed optional masks were 3½ times more likely to have Covid outbreaks versus schools that do mandate masks. As a clinical practitioner at Mission Hospital I can tell you that about 12 percent of our hospital is full of Covid patients, many of them are very critically ill and we are really struggling to keep up.

"It is getting better, as I'm sure we're all aware," he said. "However, I don't think right now would be the time to stop the mask mandate. We are getting close to that time where we will be able to drop mask mandates but for now I think they need to stay in place. The science says they need to stay in place and our kids deserve to be safe."

At the monthly meeting of the Board of Health Tuesday night, Director Steve Smith said the health protocols were working effectively to protect children and keep them in the classroom.

Last week, the district has 52 positive cases and 35 quarantines for a total of 87 affected individuals.

"With a current student census of 12,727, that means .68 % (less than 1 percent) were excluded from schools for that week," he said. "It is also notable that our quarantine to case ratio remains less than 1. ... Our favorable position today is due to the appropriate model put in place by the Henderson County Board of Public Education and I commend their ongoing commitment to these core principles to protect our children. It didn’t happen by accident. It has taken a lot of work and effort to protect all of our schools (public, charter and private)…..let’s not deviate too soon from the actions that generate this level of protection for all.

During the School Board discussion, Caskey noted that she had read a study of Covid cases in the mask-optional school system of Lancaster County, S.C. The similar-sized district reported two teacher deaths and one child death from Covid-19.

"And when I'm looking at the cohort study — you might not want to call it science, I don't care what you call it — I call it somebody's child died of Covid, I call it two teachers dying of Covid," she said. "So there is that science word."