Southern Pines Councilman Mitch Lancaster has had strong personal opinions about mask mandates and ongoing state restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly how they impact school students.
During a council meeting Monday, he asked his fellow council members to support a resolution asking N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper to approve Senate Bill 37. That legislation, approved by both the House and Senate with strong majorities, requires school districts to give students the option of in-person learning.
The bill, awaiting Cooper’s signature, would not impact Moore County Schools. The district already has its K-5 and special needs students back full-time and offers partial in-person learning for grades 6-12. The legislation targets other districts that are only offering virtual learning.
“I think it is extremely important that we get all kids back in school five days a week,” Lancaster said. “There are kids (back) in school around the world and around the country, and it is being done safely. Even here in Southern Pines, there are private schools where kids are in school five days a week. It is doable.”
SB 37 does not require five-day in-person, only the option for such, and it was unclear from Lancaster’s remarks whether he recognized this distinction.
Earlier this month, Gov. Roy Cooper and state education officials encouraged local school systems to reopen for in-person instruction, but they stopped short of mandating the move or issuing firm guidance about how it should be accomplished.
“I know Cooper is urging people, but I think it needs to be a reverse mandate. We need to get the kids in school,” Lancaster said. “I want it to be known that we have to push to get schools open.”
Lancaster said he understood that more students returning to in-person learning could increase the spread of coronavirus, but said that should not be the only health consideration.
“There is real harm being done, real tangible harms being done to children (being out of school). I think it is important to me and our citizens to get our children back in school,” Lancaster said.
During discussion, other members of the Southern Pines Town Council demurred from taking action, with most stating they did not have a clear enough understanding of the legislation.
“I don’t disagree with what Mitch has said, but I am uninformed,” said Councilman Mike Saulnier.
Mayor Pro Tem Paul Murphy also noted that while the council work session was underway, he had received a text from an MCS teacher who let him know she had been exposed to COVID-19 as a result of classroom instruction.
“While (in-person learning) seems okay in some settings, given the demographics of our population, in other settings where they are in smaller spaces, it can be challenging,” Murphy said. “I’m an educator and there are some factors that I’d like to see first.”
Lancaster responded that he did not want to put anybody in a position where they felt they were being pushed too much, “but I would ask you to please speak out if you believe in getting schools reopened.”