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Judge rules mask-optional policy to remain for Lincoln County Schools

The ruling said the parents demanding a mandate didn't provide enough proof that the mask-optional was a constitutional deprivation.

LINCOLN COUNTY, N.C. — A judge has denied a request by a group of Lincoln County parents to enact a temporary restraining order against the current mask-optional policy in place at Lincoln County Schools, meaning the policy will remain in place.

The board's decision faced pushback in the courts after the group said the school district needed to require masks because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. During a hearing Tuesday, a judge heard arguments from both sides. The judge pushed the decision to Thursday and handed down the decision just before 2 p.m.

“We felt we met the burden, that we had all the evidence that we needed to meet that but ultimately it’s his decision to make that and I respect that decision,” said Meredith Shuford, one of the eight attorneys representing the parents. “We’re disappointed but I was a judge in the past. I understand how hard it is for a judge to make this kind of decision and I believe he didn’t want to overstep, the judicial system overstepping the local authority.”  

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Previously, an attorney representing the parents said the district is directed to follow the state's guidance on masks, and if there's no requirement in place, they should follow the CDC's policy. The district's representation disagreed, arguing the state has not directed schools to mandate face coverings. The judge noted this in his ruling on Thursday.

Shuford, who took the case pro bono, said she doesn't think that's good enough for the parents she represents. She also spoke as a parent of a Lincoln County student herself.

“I think when you’re having children in a classroom for 6 to 7 hours a day in small group settings and then they’re going home to their families, I think it’s dangerous to the whole community,” she said, “And people are worried, people are scared and I have trouble understanding why our board doesn’t recognize that.” 

RELATED: 12% of Americans will still 'definitely not' get COVID-19 vaccine, survey finds

Concerned parents expressed their disappointment to WCNC Charlotte. Stephanie Teasley said her son is high-risk and couldn't handle a fight with COVID-19.

“He had a regular cold and missed four days of school because his lungs struggled with that kind of virus, and now that there’s the possibility of more COVID exposure than there was before, I am more nervous,” she said. “My son definitely would not bounce back from COVID and a mask is one safety precaution that could have helped reduce that exposure. I think I should have a right to protect my son in that way.”  

Lincoln County's health director sent a letter to the board outlining COVID-19 data for the county, requesting the mask mandate be put back in place. Under the current policy, students are required to be in school for in-person learning unless they are positive for COVID-19 or have a written quarantine order.

Current data from Lincoln County's health department, which was released for Sept. 29, showed there were 417 active COVID-19 cases at that time. 47% of the county is vaccinated against the virus, while 53% are unvaccinated. Just 3% of Lincoln County residents are partially vaccinated.

The district provided a statement to WCNC Charlotte after the ruling:

Today, the Lincoln County Superior Court ruled that Lincoln County Schools can continue with its optional face covering policy for students and staff. Like all other school boards in North Carolina, the Lincoln County Board of Education will continue to review its face covering policy on a monthly basis, as required by law.

More information on Lincoln County Schools’ COVID-19 protocols may be found on the LCS website under COVID-19 information and updates.

According to the data from Lincoln County Schools, there were a total of 97 COVID-19 cases across the district from Sept. 20 through Sept. 24. For the entire month of September, a total of 365 cases in the district were reported.

Lincoln County and Union County are the only North Carolina districts in the Charlotte area that currently don't require masks.

Whitney Hafele, another parent WCNC Charlotte spoke to, said that's not good enough for her. She was especially upset with members of the school board who voted against a mask requirement.

“Do what’s right for the children because it’s our children you’re putting at risk,” she said, “just like the child that just died in Mecklenburg County. How close does it have to get for you to actually care?"

RELATED: Elementary school student died of COVID-19, Mecklenburg County Public Health says

 Amy Turner is another parent who has her own concerns. She has three children of her own in school and a baby at home. She's afraid her older kids could bring the virus home.

She also said she has heard the lack of a mask requirement could impact how many teachers remain in schools as well.

“I’m friends with a lot of teachers and they’re pulling themselves out because they don’t want to be in the system if there’s not a mask mandate, so I don’t know, it’s a mess,”  Turner said. “I don’t really know where to go from here.”

Contact Ashley Daley at adaley@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

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