The parents sorted themselves. On one half of the bleachers sat masked moms and a priest holding a small typed sign that read “Masks save lives.” On the other half, an unmasked woman propped up a poster board comparing processed cheese to COVID-19, flashing a thumbs-up at photographers. Other stone-faced women held signs reading, “Their bodies, their choice.”

The Dare County Board of Education had convened this special meeting on Sept. 1 to revisit a controversial August decision allowing parental choice on masks for the county’s approximately 5,200 schoolchildren.

The decision, made by the board’s six Republican members, had gone against a recommendation by both the health director and the superintendent to require masks in school. But in the first six days of school, cases and quarantines in the county’s 11 public schools had spiked, and the board felt compelled to revisit its decision.

When board vice-chair Margaret Lawler made a motion to reverse the decision and require masks, a man in the audience jumped up and shouted, “I’d like to make a motion that parents actually…” Lawler banged her gavel and half the audience clapped and cheered, drowning out the rest of his sentence. Five police officers hurried up the bleachers toward him while the crowd shouted, “Freedom” and, “Free speech is dead in our schools.”

“I’d like to remind you that this is a public meeting where we expect you not to disrupt,” said Lawler.

“Public meeting? Public?” someone shouted back.

“Officers, please remove this woman from the gym,” said Lawler, pointing at the woman in the front row with the processed cheese sign.

There were times when the entire endeavor felt like an extended episode of Parks and Recreation. At others, the heated debate felt close to devolving into something worse.

But under it all was a perplexing contradiction: Dare has been lauded nationally as the most vaccinated rural county in the South, yet it has found itself in a maelstrom of unruly meetings and police escorts, rejecting a different pillar of public health guidance.

From the chaos emerged a truth about the new reality of local governance: As the pandemic drags on and political resentments calcify, leaders will have to navigate a situation in which nobody seems to have the answers, while also bearing the brunt of the public’s mounting frustration and rage.

Dare County, which sprawls along North Carolina’s northeast coast, is a place of contrasts. Year-round residents live in working-class fishing villages like Wanchese and towns like Manteo, while tourists flock to seaside vacation homes along the Outer Banks.

The county’s high vaccination rate can be attributed to a few factors, said Dare County health director Dr. Sheila Davies. The county skews older, with 22 percent of residents over 65, compared to a state average of just 16 percent. Older residents, Davies said, are easier to target for vaccines.

“Those individuals were ready. They grew up in an era of vaccinations. There wasn’t this government distrust. Smooth rollout. Very easy. Word of mouth spread,” said Davies. “Then from that, it trickled to the next age groups.”

Living under the constant threat of hurricanes, the county is also well-practiced in sending out mass communications to its residents. It has physical resources, like signage and call centers, as well as experience distributing necessities like cleaning supplies and tetanus shots after storms. Davies said that county residents who came through vaccine distribution centers joked that the county was the “Chick-Fil-A of vaccines” because of its efficiency.

But even with an exceptionally high vaccination rate, the county, like the rest of the state, is back in the red zone for community coronavirus transmission. And Davies’ life is still an exercise in nonstop disaster mitigation.

The Dare County School Board convenes in the school gym at First Flight High School during an emergency meeting to debate a school mask mandate // Photo by Cornell Watson
Sheriffs escort an outspoken anti-mask parent from the gym at First Flight High School // Photo by Cornell Watson

A well-dressed woman with piercing eyes, a crisp voice, and good posture, Davies arrived for our interview at the Dare County Emergency Management building, where she had been based during the worst of the pandemic last year and returned when cases started spiking a few weeks ago.

Our initial meeting was scheduled for the Monday before the September Board of Education emergency meeting, but she had to postpone. That afternoon, she rushed to Duck, a town on the outer strip of the Outer Banks, to personally pick up a load of vaccines and rush them back to the emergency center’s fridge.

I asked her about the paradox of widespread vaccine acceptance alongside a small but vocal anti-masks-in-schools contingent. Davies said she didn’t have a good answer. “Honestly, it’s hard to rationalize. I don’t really have an explanation. It defies logic,” she said.

As the public face of the county’s health department, Davies has found herself at the center of the school masking controversy. At the Sept. 1 meeting, attendees shouted, “Get Davies out of our school.” She opted not to attend that meeting. “It’s not a comfortable position to put yourself in, in front of that group,” she said.

During the 2020-21 school year, Dare County schools went virtual from November to March. In late February, with the first wave of instructors fully vaccinated, the district started bringing students back. Schools used a hybrid model, with some kids continuing their classes online. This summer, life started to go back to normal. The district held prom and graduation. As the rest of the country hoped that the COVID era was receding in the rearview mirror, so did Dare County.

Officials started planning for a return to school in the fall. At a June Board of Education meeting, parents swarmed the microphone to speak out in favor of parental choice on masks in schools, a policy that would allow individual parents to decide whether their children must mask up. But then, caseloads started to rise again, just as the Board of Education prepared to declare its policy on masking for the new school year.

Until a few years ago, Dare County’s Board of Education was not officially political. But a statewide push, which included a 2017 law known as the Boswell Bill, changed Dare County’s school board elections—along with five other counties—from nonpartisan affairs to partisan ones. Dare County, once represented by the late and powerful Democratic senator Marc Basnight, is now heavily Republican, including six of its seven school-board members.

At an Aug. 5 meeting, both Davies and Dare County Schools Superintendent John Farrelly recommended that the schools require masks and promote vaccinations, which is in line with guidance from Gov. Roy Cooper.

“This isn’t Sheila Davies–created guidance. This is guidance from the NC Department of Health and Human Services,” said Davies after her presentation at that meeting, where she talked about Dare County’s return to red-level community transmission, and the highly contagious nature of the delta variant.

Without masks in schools, “there is no doubt that the number of kids that are going to be quarantined will go up, perhaps significantly,” said Farrelly.

But the majority of parents—63 percent in a district survey conducted by the superintendent’s office—wanted parental choice on masking. The majority of the board agreed.

Parents and officials at the Sept. 1, 2021, Dare County School Board Meeting // Photos by Cornell Watson

“Anecdotally, having conversations with parents, they believe that the masks are more harmful to their children than the virus, on the mental and physical side of the spectrum,” board member Joe Tauber told The Assembly. Tauber voted for parental choice because he wanted to see the schools return to normal. “Normalcy in the school is children playing, and not wearing masks, and just coming to school,” he said.

Even though most of the officials in the gym agreed with the crowd, that Aug. 5 meeting still turned unruly—or “passionate,” as Tauber called it. When Farrelly announced the district’s survey results, the crowd erupted into cheers. “We’re going to have to clear the gym,” Chair Mary Ellon Ballance said. “I’ve asked you three times to stay quiet. We have a lot of information to get through.”

This disruption in Dare County is far from the worst public meeting chaos this autumn: In states across the country, school boards are contending with parents disrupting and shouting, yelling “Heil Hitler,” refusing to wear masks, and threatening to stalk officials.

At the August meeting, the board ended up taking a recess and not clearing the gym, which would have been in violation of rules surrounding public meetings. Lawler, the only Democrat on the board and the only vote for a mask mandate, read a brief statement, stating, “this has been the hardest decision I’ve ever made,” but added that she supported masks because she was concerned that without them, the school district would have to take other drastic measures, like closing the schools.

As they cast their votes, including a vote to not actively promote vaccines in school, Ballance begged the audience to refrain from shouting out.

As the school year started, so did the quarantines.

According to NC DHHS guidelines, if an unmasked student comes into contact with another COVID-positive classmate, the student must quarantine at home, even if they don’t show symptoms. At full capacity, Dare County schools are not physically big enough to support six feet of social distancing. With only 30 percent of kids and 40 percent of teachers voluntarily wearing masks in schools, many kids were going home for 14 days at a time.

This policy is in line with CDC recommendations, but states have been varied in how they interpret the national guidelines when it comes to schoolchildren. Some states, including Massachusetts and Utah, have instituted a “test and stay” policy, where students who come into close contact with COVID-positive classmates can stay in school if they receive a negative rapid test every day. In other states, students must quarantine for seven days or 10 days and can return to school when they receive a negative test. Across the country, tens of thousands of students have gone into quarantine since the start of the 2021-22 school year.

In Dare County, the superintendent’s office posts a daily update online showing how many kids are quarantined and how many are sick. By Aug. 30, the sixth day of the school year, there were 61 active cases and 319 students quarantined. By Sept. 1, nearly 400 were quarantined.

Superintendent John Farrelly during an emergency Dare County School Board meeting, Sept 1, 2021 // Photo by Cornell Watson

The results of these quarantines trickled down to the community, said Davies, with the labor force suffering with so many stuck at home to watch their kids.

Since the start of the in-person school year, 41 other North Carolina school districts had reversed their parental choice masking policies; neighboring Currituck County, which has a vaccination rate of only 40 percent, had quietly convened virtually on Aug. 27, after a week of school, to vote to require masks. Dare County decided to call a special in-person meeting for Sept. 1 to revisit its decision too.

Dare County, at large, lifted its mask mandate in May and had no plans to reinstate it. Davies said she thought there was no public appetite or will for a universal masking policy, with the amount of COVID fatigue and anger in the region.

A movie theater in Manteo, the county seat, proclaimed “masks optional” on its marquee; the popular Front Porch Café requested that unvaccinated patrons mask up, and inside, most patrons and employees were bare-faced. Nags Head restaurant South Beach had taken another tack, opening up to curbside pickup only, while harried employees raced in and out of the door to deliver patrons their to-go orders. “Help wanted” signs were everywhere.

The key with schools, said Davies, is that they are closed environments where masking is enforceable. (Local community college, College of The Albemarle in Manteo, requires masks indoors.) Nobody wanted to close down the public schools and return to virtual instruction.

The atmosphere in the Dare County schools administration building the Monday before the Sept. 1 meeting was palpable with anxiety and frustration. Unmasked receptionists complained about the self-evaluation COVID test and the infrared thermometer guns. A masked couple waited in the reception area to meet with school officials. They had come to the school building because their son was quarantined, for the third time in his life, and they were furious.

Upstairs, Superintendent Farrelly sat in his office, surrounded by pictures of his school-aged kids. Farrelly has had a long and illustrious career in public education. He’s worked in education for nearly three decades, 13 of those years as a superintendent. He cut his teeth in the high-poverty counties of Washington, between Raleigh and the Outer Banks, and Edgecombe, which encompasses part of Rocky Mount. In Edgecombe County, Farrelly founded the Blue Ribbon Commission on Educational Equity, designed to foster educational and community conversation around the county’s deep equity issues. And yet, he said, the challenges created by the pandemic have proven singular.

“This has been the most complex and concerning period of time that I’ve been a superintendent,” said Farrelly. He feels the stresses of his job have taken five or six years off his life. “I’ve never, in 29 years, encountered these kinds of stressful challenges and polarizing times that we’re in.”

Davies echoed Farrelly’s feelings about the stress. She’s no novice in her field either: She started her career as a paramedic in Virginia, then moved to Dare County to start a substance-abuse program. She left to help establish a telepsychiatry emergency department at Albemarle Hospital in Elizabeth City, a groundbreaking initiative that transformed rural access to mental health evaluation and expanded to a statewide program. She returned to Dare County to take the public health director’s seat in 2014.

As part of their state funding, Dare County officials must complete pandemic training every year, and some officials in the county have experience with contact tracing from the Zika and Ebola epidemics of the past decade.

“But never did the training prepare you for the duration and the politicization of this particular pandemic,” said Davies. She said that she physically cannot keep up with the number of phone calls she has received from angry and frustrated parents.

Meanwhile, other officials and public health professionals were sending impassioned pleas to the school board. Dr. David Dwyer, chief of staff at the Outer Banks Hospital, sent a letter to board members pleading them to change their mind and require masks, saying that beds at his hospital were full and urgent care centers in the area had had to reduce their operating hours due to staff shortages. The chair of the Dare County Health & Human Services Board wrote too, asking the school board to reverse its Aug. 5 decision.

The board meeting on Sept. 1 was closed to public comment, but still, approximately 50 people took their seats in the gym bleachers. School board chair Mary Ellon Ballance attended virtually—she confirmed to The Assembly that she had contracted COVID-19 and was still in isolation.

Farrelly presented on the emails he’d received from parents and community members regarding masks, which some see as a common-sense measure to combat the pandemic and others see as an unconstitutional, scientifically questionable requirement.

“In today’s world, we are confusing facts with opinions,” Tauber said after the meeting. “I think that related to COVID, there are a lot of opinions on both sides of the issue. I counsel people, Don’t tell me something’s a scientific fact when it’s really a scientific opinion. That applies to both sides, quite frankly.”

Public health officials and scientists have long recommended masks as a way to curtail the spread of the virus, though organizations like the CDC initially advised Americans not to wear masks at the beginning of the pandemic.

If there’s one hallmark of the COVID era, it’s a rapidly changing consensus on best policies and practices to keep everybody safe. Throughout the meetings, the school board struggled to stay up to date with the fast-evolving situation. Carl Woody, a school-board member who voted for parental choice, asked Farrelly where he could find information about how universal masking would reduce the need to quarantine.

“It’s in the toolkit,” said Farrelly, dryly, referring to the set of guidelines released by NC DHHS.

Tauber, too, had plenty of questions. “Are you saying that we are doomed for failure no matter what? Because we can’t maintain six feet?” he asked. “Can the Dare County Health Department legally come into our schools and quarantine our students?” (The answer is yes.) “The finger’s pointing at our children,” he added. “And that’s the distressing part.”

There was a sense that the board “supported parental choice in schools,” as Tauber said, but that the health department had backed the board into a corner with its quarantine policy, which board members like Tauber feel is too strict, leaving their hands tied.

“It seems as though the only way we can guarantee our kids are in school is to have them in masks,” said Ballance over the phone. “We’re really at the mercy of our local health department.”

The board overall acknowledged that given the physical size of the schools, the quarantine requirements, and community spread, masking was the only way to keep the schools open. Board member Frank Hester said, “At the end of the day, for me, it boils down to, What is the best opportunity for kids to stay in class the longest?”

Every Board of Education member flipped their vote at that Sept. 1 meeting, except for Lawler who was the lone dissenting vote in August. The vote was unanimous for a mask mandate. There was a moment of stunned silence in the audience, and then people started storming out. “It’s their body, their choice,” shouted a woman in a black romper.

“Sellouts,” called someone else as she left with her kids.

“Disappointed,” snarled one woman walking out of the auditorium. “They took away everything,” she added, tearing up.

Parents at the Emergency School Board Meeting, Sept. 1, 2021; Top Left: Amy Scarborough; Bottom: Ashley Eatmon // Photos by Cornell Watson

Amy Scarborough and Ashley Eatmon are two parents who attended the meeting in favor of parental choice. “Kids are being punished,” said Scarborough. They referred to the board’s vote as a virtue signal. Eatmon said her daughter had developed a cough from wearing a mask last year. “We’re sick until proven healthy,” she said.

Scarborough said her son was quarantined on Saturday and can’t go back to school for 14 days. She’d been given a packet of worksheets to review with him and no other guidance. She works full time and brings him with her to work. He’s not sick, she noted—they went surfing that morning. “I’m done with public school,” she said.

But other parents had attended the meeting to argue that they believe that there is a silent majority in support of masks. Jessica Fearns and Susan Ulrich, two parents of kindergartners, said they supported the Board of Education flipping its policy. “We want them to know that not everybody thinks they’re cowards,” said Fearns.

A few days after the meeting, Dare County had calmed down. On Saturday, Farrelly was on his way to a baseball game in Washington, D.C., to relax. Only one parent had pulled their child out of school as a result of Wednesday’s decision, he said, while only 11 had opted into virtual learning. On Thursday, the morning after the meeting, the school system had received no pushback from any school regarding mask-wearing. A week after the policy changed, the school district still had 77 active cases and nearly 500 students in quarantine, but officials said that because of the 14-day quarantine duration, it will take until Sept. 15 for those numbers to start to go down.

“I feel a sense of relief: I believe we’ve taken the right measure. From an instructional standpoint, we now have a path moving forward to keep kids in school, to have consistency in delivery. If we can keep kids in school, and have a minimal impact on virtual and quarantine, these are all pluses for us,” Farrelly said. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

“It was a little nerve-wracking with how people reacted,” said Margaret Lawler, the board vice-chair who presided over the meeting. She noted, however, that the first man who had jumped up and shouted had called her and all the other board members the following day to apologize.

“It’s a very, very complicated and emotional issue,” said Tauber. “Hopefully, at some point in time, we can get back to some sense of normalcy.”

But the story of masking in Dare County—and these highly contentious, highly politicized decisions about public health—is not over. As Farrelly said, there are “turbulent times” ahead. The board is gearing up for its Sept. 14 meeting, where public comments will be allowed. And by a new General Assembly statute, the board must revisit its masking policy every month until the pandemic is over, whenever that may be.

“What that’s going to mean is, this is going to continue to be a highly contentious issue across the state,” said Farrelly. “It’s not going away anytime soon.”

Emily Cataneo is a writer and journalist based in Raleigh. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, Slate, Atlas Obscura, Undark, and many other venues. She is a co-founder of Raleigh’s Redbud Writing Project.

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This piece was published in partnership with EdNC. The Assembly retained editorial control.