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

The Johnston County Board of Education voted 4-3 Monday to continue to require students and staff to wear face masks.

The vote follows last week’s board meeting where dozens of parents rallied outside of the Johnson County Public Schools’ administrative building in Smithfield to demand the board lift the mandate.

New state law requires school boards to vote on masking policies each month.

The Johnston County school board delayed voting on its policy last week due to the absence of vice chairwoman Terri Sessoms, whose husband recently died.

Sessoms seconded the motion made by Kay Carroll to keep the masking policy in place and to create a committee to review COVID-19 metrics to determine when it’s safe to end the masking requirement.

“I believe that it’s vitally important that in the spirit of transparency that we have a metrics established so that parents know what that looks like and give them some hope that this is not forever,” Sessoms said.

School board members Lyn Andrews, Al Byrd  joined Carroll and Sessoms in voting to keep the mask mandate in place. Board members Michael Wooten, Ronald Johnson and Board Chairman Todd Sutton voted against keeping the mandate.

Johnson suggested that the board establish mask-free schools for students and school employees who don’t want to wear face coverings.

“It would take a lot of logistical work,” Johnson said. “I’m sure there’s people in the district right now watching [who are] rolling their eyes, not because I’m talking, but because the idea would create a significant amount of work.”

Meanwhile, Carroll said data shared by Dr. Rodney McCaskill, the chief medical officer at Johnston Health, makes it necessary to keep the making policy in place.

McCaskill told the board last week that the number of patients in the county’s hospital who are on life support has grown tenfold.

Mask opponents were joined at last week’s rally by U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a Republican from Hendersonville, who has traveled the state asking boards to ignore Gov. Roy Cooper’s request that districts require face masks.

“It’s time to be fearless,” Cawthorn said. “It’s time to stand up to Roy Cooper and say that the family and individual freedom always comes for the government.”

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