In the days leading up to the Cumberland County School Board’s vote to make masks optional, board members who changed their previous votes were communicating with each other on the issue, according to school board documents.
But two of the three board members who changed their stance on the issue said the side conversations weren’t that important in their decision-making process.
From September to January, the school board voted five times in a row to maintain a mask mandate in school buildings, with the no closing in on 7-2.
This voting trend meant that the mandate would remain in place unless at least three council members changed their minds.
In the days leading up to a Feb. 8 meeting, three board members were communicating with each other via text about the issue, according to school board documents obtained by The Fayetteville Observer via a public records request. At the meeting, all three voted differently than in the past, resulting in a 5-4 decision to stop the term. Minutes later, the council voted by the same margin to make masks optional from eight days later.
Two of the three board members – Donna Vann and Susan Williams – spoke to the Observer about their decisions and indicated that they didn’t think their side conversations were that important. The other, Alicia Chisolm, did not respond to an interview request.
These three board members joined board chairman Greg West and board member Nathan Warfel in voting to end the term. West and Warfel had both previously voted to stop requiring masks in schools.
Both Vann and Williams said they felt it was time to end the term.
Vice President Deanna Jones and Board Members Charles McKellar, Judy Musgrave and Carrie Sutton voted to continue the term and against making masks optional.
The day after the Feb. 8 meeting, the Observer asked Cumberland County Schools for all emails, text messages, and written materials from Jan. 11 to noon Feb. 9 that any school board member and Superintendent Marvin Connelly Jr. have received or sent. containing the words “mask”, “masks”, “mandate”, “mandates”, “COVID” and/or “COVID-19”. On March 9, the Observer received a stack of documents almost 2 inches thick.
Most of the documents were duplicates received by all council members. Many contained emails from parents asking the council to stop or continue the mask mandate. Some gave board members updates on the number of students and staff who had tested positive for COVID-19.
Few of the documents included communications between council members, but three were text messages that talked about the mandate.
The state’s open meeting law states that communications between council members are considered public records. The law prohibits the majority of council members from meeting in secret, but allows individual conversations.
West, who had voted earlier to end the term, sent one of the messages to Vann three days before the Feb. 8 meeting. He asked to discuss a few things with her, including masks.
The day before the meeting, Vann texted Chisolm and Williams about the issue.
“What do you think about lifting the mask mandate,” Vann asked Williams.
“I’m about to jump as an option,” Williams replied at 8:49 p.m.
Three minutes later, Vann texted Chisolm, asking, “How do you feel about making masks optional?”
Chisolm did not text back, but Vann said in the interview that she spoke to him on the phone after the message.
Vann had a simple explanation when asked about the text messages.
“It’s called curiosity,” she says. “I don’t think there was anything wrong with that.”
Williams said she might have called Vann after the text message, but Vann said her phone records show the two spoke on Jan. 26.
West said he often speaks to board members about school issues. He said he thinks the five council members decided it was the right time to end the term.
“I think they did it on their own,” he said. “There hasn’t been much discussion about it.”
Williams said she changed her mind about the mask mandate after reviewing the drop in COVID-19 cases among students and staff. The number of cases fell from more than 1,000 to around 150, she said.
“I was like, it’s time to look at this because the data doesn’t lie,” she said. “That was a huge factor for me on the masks.”
COVID-19 cases in the county have continued to decline since the school board’s decision. There were 25 cases among students and staff during the week that ended March 10, according to the school system’s website.
West said he thinks it’s only a matter of time before masks become optional.
“I think it was obvious that it was time to give people a choice,” he said.
Vann said she thinks it’s time for parents to decide whether their children should wear masks.
“I feel like we did the right thing,” she said. “I have no doubt about it.”
Local News Editor Steve DeVane can be reached at [email protected] or 910-486-3572.
Editor Ivey Schofield can be reached at [email protected]