This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch.

Tuesday morning was warm and muggy. Above tightly fitted masks, eyeglasses fogged over with each breath. 

It was the first day of classes for thousands of Durham Public Schools students who attend on a traditional calendar. Most of the state’s 1.5 million students started classes this week.

At Bethesda Elementary School in Durham, students, teachers, and staff members all complied with the district’s mandate to wear masks while indoors. Masked students in new clothes, fresh sneakers, and book bags streamed single-file from a fleet of school buses to greet staffers waiting for them behind hidden smiles and bearing large bottles of hand sanitizer. 

There were no traditional first day of school hugs like before COVID-19.

And students in masks, staffers squirting hand sanitizer into small hands and practicing social distancing hardly seemed odd after 17 months of COVID-related school disruptions. 

Bethesda Principal Shaneeka Moore-Lawrence said the goal is to follow the safety protocols, including masking, established after students returned to classrooms in March following months of virtual learning. 

“We are very confident that what we did in March when students came back will be a great way for us to start August as well,” Moore-Lawrence said.  

The orderly and mask compliant start to the new academic year at Bethesda, a school of approximately 650 students, stands in stark contrast to the unruly gatherings this summer outside school board meetings across North Carolina where hundreds of parents, political operatives and others gathered to lobby against mask mandates.

The Durham school district received very few complaints about its decision to require masks, Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said. 

“Our community is very supportive,” Mubenga said shortly before students began to arrive at Bethesda. “They understand that this is the right thing to do. I haven’t seen any push back, maybe a couple [of complaints] here or there, but 99 percent of the folks are fine with masking.”  

That has not been the case in many districts.

Opposition to masks persists

In Guilford County, anti-mask protesters launched mean-spirited attacks against school board members and Superintendent Sharon Contreras. 

The district took the threats seriously. Additional security officers are posted at board meetings and Contreras received extra security after opponents of mask mandates sent threatening messages to the board and superintendent. 

“We wouldn’t want anything to happen to the superintendent [Contreras] on our watch,” school board member Khem Irby told Policy Watch earlier this month. “This has been something for the board to rally around because we don’t want harm to come to any board members.”   

Protesters outside of a Guilford County Board of Education meeting earlier this month argued that wearing a mask should be a personal choice. Speakers, many of whom identified themselves as Republicans, shared false information about the impact the Delta variant has on children and about the effectiveness of masks against the virus.   

In Buncombe County, an unruly crowd angry about the school district’s mask mandate forced the Board of Education to call a recess; members of the audience then purported to nominate and appoint themselves to the board.  

The list of school districts with mask mandates has grown in response to an alarming surge in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations because of the highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus. State officials have said unvaccinated people account for nearly all new infections.  

Governor Roy Cooper lifted North Carolina’s statewide mask mandate earlier this year, which has left the decision in the hands of local school boards. North Carolina has also updated its StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit to align it with guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The guidance urges districts to do everything possible to keep students in schools and emphasizes masking. The Toolkit has been approved by the State Board of Education. 

Raleigh’s News & Observer has reported that 90 of the state’s 115 school districts are requiring that face masks be worn indoors. Meanwhile, masks are optional in 25 districts, all in rural areas, the paper reported, that voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. 

Michele Burton, president of the Durham Association of Educators, noted that districts in counties that are heavily Democratic have more readily embraced mask mandates. 

Durham County has about 125,000 registered Democrats and roughly 24,000 registered Republicans. 

“I think some of it is geography,” Burton said. Durham is heavily Democratic and liberal. Guilford [County] and Greensboro are very Democratic and liberal, but the outer areas of Guilford County are very conservative.” 

Burton said in the state’s more conservative quarters there’s an “ideology” among anti-maskers that “limited government interference” is best. 

Politics versus public health

State Treasurer Dale Folwell, a Republican from Winston-Salem, acknowledged that vaccinations and masking have become highly politicized. 

“The governor [Cooper, a Democrat] has said in one of his press conferences that anyone who doesn’t get vaccinated is unpatriotic and the lieutenant governor [Mark Robinson, a Republican] has said that elected officials who encourage vaccinations maybe shouldn’t be elected,” Folwell said.  

The treasurer, who contracted the virus in March 2020 and became seriously ill, said the politicization of the vaccines and masking has made it impossible to have collegial discussions to challenge assumptions about the virus, treatments and safety protocols to “reach the right outcomes.” 

“While all of this politicization is happening, especially over the last year, we’ve created deaths, we’ve created poverty and we’ve created illiteracy,” said Folwell, a member of the SBE who voted in favor of the Toolkit update.  

For Bethesda parent Tashina Foust, the emotional and social well-being of daughter Anayo takes precedence over the political squabble about masking. 

Foust explained that Anaya is entering the second grade having had very little in-person instruction.   

“She left [school] the second year of kindergarten [due to COVID-19] and she’s in second grade now,” Foust said. “She [Anaya] hasn’t been around people that much, so we’re definitely a little concerned.” 

The Delta variant of the virus has gotten Foust’s attention because children under 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. 

“I’ve talked to her [Anaya] about not touching her face and sanitizing after she’s touched objects,” Foust said. “I’ve also talked to her about frequent hand washing and wearing her mask over her nose at all times.” 

Mother and daughter waited for the crowd to move into the school before they entered. Foust spoke with administrators, kissed Anaya good-bye, then left. Anaya didn’t take Foust’s departure well and began to cry. Attentive staffers rushed to calm her despite the COVID-19 fears that have changed the way the nation’s system of public schools operate, possibly forever.

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