Marcia Manning, Wayne County Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for students services and innovative programs, speaks to the Wayne County Board of Education Monday night.

Wearing a face mask is now optional for students, staff and visitors at Wayne County Public Schools until further notice.

The Wayne County Board of Education voted 4-2 Monday evening to make mask wearing optional for students, staff and visitors with the caveat that the board will revisit the decision at its next meeting and can revisit the matter should outbreaks occur.

Before voting, the board listened to COVID-19 Data Review and Recommended Protocols for 2021-2022 by Marcia Manning, WCPS assistant superintendent for students services and innovative programs.

Initially following the presentation, school board member Len Henderson, who represents District 2, motioned to strongly support the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Strong Schools N.C. Public Health Toolkit guidance by requiring that all students K-12 and staff wear masks at school.

His motion prompted a disruption from members in the audience, and Chairman Chris West had to gavel the meeting back to order.

School board member Patricia Burden, who represents District 3, seconded Henderson’s motion.

“Mr. Chair, I think this is a terrible idea,” school board member Jessica Strickland, who represents District 4, told West.

“We’ve been balancing and weighing for a year and a half the needs of the students, the needs of the parents, the needs of the teachers. We are seeing that the transmission is still incredibly low in children. We are seeing, though, that the psychological damage is incredibly high in children when they are being forced to mask.

“When you start looking at small children and you’re looking at situations where they need to be able to see their teacher’s faces, when they’re learning how to speak, spell, all the different issues that come about in that early development for children. I am so frustrated right now I cannot even formulate a full sentence, and I apologize.”

Strickland continued, “Parents’ rights should be put at the forefront, masks should be optional for every individual in the school, including staff, personnel, students and visitors.”

School board member Wade Leatham, who represents District 6, said mask wearing is a personal choice.

“It comes down to a personal choice for each family, and I think that’s where this board needs to leave it,” Leatham said. “We need to put the parents back in the equation.”

The board voted 4-2 against Henderson’s motion, prompting applause from the audience.

Strickland then made a motion making masks optional for students, staff and visitors — effective immediately — with the caveat that the board revisit the vote at its next meeting and change its decision as necessary.

“We’re going to monitor (COVID-19 cases) very closely, and if we see a spike, a certain spike immediately, we will call for another meeting and revisit the vote,” West said Tuesday afternoon.

Strickland said mandating masks isn’t right.

“This is not right to do this to the parents and the students of Wayne County,” Strickland said during the board meeting.

Burden said Tuesday she is concerned the school board is not following the toolkit guidelines from NCDHHS.

“I think it’s easier to start off following those guidelines, and if things improve, then we could vary it,” Burden said.

Ken Derksen, WCPS communications and public relations officer, said Monday’s vote to make masks optional only applies during the school day.

“It is important to note that the board’s decision only impacts mask wearing during the school day,” Derksen said. “Athletic rules will be handled in accordance with (North Carolina High School Athletic Association) guidelines. Like airplanes and public transportation, federal (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention orders also require) that masks be worn on school buses by students and the driver, regardless of a local board of education’s decision to make masks optional at school.”

Schools are on track to open Aug. 23 for those on the traditional calendar, Manning said. Those on the nontraditional calendar — Wayne Early/Middle College High School, Wayne School of Engineering and Goldsboro High School — will start Friday, while Carver Heights Elementary School will open Aug. 18.

Manning and Kim Kennedy, WCPS lead nurse, have been conferring about what safety protocols will be in place when students go back to school this fall, but haven’t come up with a concrete list of recommendations for the Wayne County Board of Education, which has final approval.

They’re using the Strong Schools N.C. Public Health Toolkit, which makes recommendations based on CDC findings.