Lightning flashed across the Greensboro sky just outside the Guilford County Schools’ administration building.
Yet none of the 50 or so parents, politicians and schoolchildren standing under a clump of trees ran for cover, a fact cheered by a speaker who was revving up sign-toting, anti-maskers before a school board meeting.
When the downpour promised by darkening skies and thunder arrived, a hearty handful of protesters remained planted in place. They huddled under umbrellas and wrapped themselves in American flags.
“When I stand here and look at this large group of people, I hear thunder in the background,” said Michael Logan, an automotive teacher at Southern Guilford High School. “I see dark clouds, but I haven’t seen anyone walk away.”
Logan said wearing a mask should be a personal choice.
“It should be up to the parents,” Logan said. “It should be up to students and it should be up to teachers.”
The rain-soaked rally held Tuesday afternoon came nearly two weeks after the Guilford County Board of Education adopted a mask mandate. It requires students and staff to wear masks when schools reopen for most students on Aug. 23.
It also came the same day the Guilford County Board of Commissioners met to restore an indoor mask requirement countywide.
“We have to do something,” Commissioner Chairman Skip Alston told local media outlets. “We cannot continue to sit by and think that this virus is going to solve itself.”
Officials respond to the growing crisis, threats from critics
The list of school districts with mask mandates is growing in response to an alarming surge in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations because of the highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus. State officials have said unvaccinated people account for nearly all new infections.
Many of the state’s large school districts have embraced mask mandates. Last week, the Wake County Public School System, the state’s largest, adopted a mask mandate. Masks are also required in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Cumberland County Schools, Durham Public Schools, and Winston-Salem-Forsyth County Schools, among others.
Districts that have adopted mask mandates have faced pushback from some parents and others who contend masks interfere with the educational process and, falsely, that they are not effective in protecting students and teachers from COVID-19.
Guilford County Schools’ mask mandate is particularly noteworthy because of opponents’ mean-spirited attacks against school board members and Superintendent Sharon Contreras.
The district has taken the threats seriously. Additional security officers are posted at meetings and Contreras received extra security after mask-mandate opponents sent threatening messages to the board and superintendent.
“We wouldn’t want anything to happen to the superintendent [Contreras] on our watch,” school board member Khem Irby told Policy Watch. “This has been something for the board to rally around because we don’t want harm to come to any board members.”
Contreras was a frequent target of protesters who gathered Tuesday at the rally sponsored by Take Back Our Schools – GCS, a conservative-leaning group whose members argue that parents should decide whether children wear masks, are vaccinated, or are tested for COVID-19.
Protesters voiced complaints about not being able to speak at school board meetings, blasted the NC Association of Educators, and railed against Critical Race Theory, an academic discipline that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy.
CRT emerged in the legal academy in the 1980s as an offshoot of critical legal studies. It has become a national wedge issue for Republicans, even though most school districts say it isn’t taught in public schools.
Spreading (and debunking) false information
Sebastian King, a Republican whose ran unsuccessfully for state Senate last November, said falsely that district leaders adopting mask mandates are not “following the science.”
“The science is showing that children are not spreading the virus,” King said. “There hasn’t been one hospitalization from the Delta variant or the COVID virus for children.” These statements are untrue.
King’s statements demonstrate the extent to which mask-mandate opponents are spreading misinformation about the risks the more dangerous Delta variant of the virus poses to children.
The Delta variant is currently the predominant strain of the virus in the United States. It’s wreaking havoc on the nation’s unvaccinated population, including children under age 12 who are not eligible to receive the vaccine.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently reported that the last week of July saw the largest increase in pediatric COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.
“The data show 71,726 COVID cases in children reported last week, almost double the 38,654 reported in the previous week,” AAP President Lee Ann Savio Beers shared in an Aug. 5 letter  to Acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Janet Woodcock. “Simply stated, the Delta variant has created a new and pressing risk to children and adolescents across this country, as it has also done for unvaccinated adults.”
Another example of misinformation about mask-wearing was found in a letter to the Guilford County school board.
“I have kindergartners and second grader and last year one of our children were [sic] one strep throat away from getting her tonsils removed due to the masks, that I washed every single night,” a parent wrote.
A spokesperson for the NC Department of Health and Human Services said Group A strep pharyngitis is commonly spread through direct person-to-person transmission, meaning it typically occurs through saliva or nasal secretions from an infected person.
“There is no evidence to support the notion that mask use can lead to strep,” the spokesperson said in an emailed response to a question from Policy Watch. “Reusable masks should be washed whenever they get dirty or at least daily. If you have a disposable face mask, throw it away after wearing it once. Always and wash your hands  after handling or touching a used mask.”
A team of Duke University pediatricians recently discussed the benefits of masking  in schools in an op-ed published in The New York Times.
Kanecia Zimmerman and Danny Benjamin lead the ABC Science Collaborative at Duke that has partnered with UNC-Chapel Hill researchers to help school districts develop best practices to address the coronavirus pandemic.
“If we send children to school without masks, we increase their risk of acquiring COVID-19. Some could suffer illness or die,” the doctors wrote. “If we close schools, millions of children will suffer learning loss, and many of them may suffer lifelong effects on their physical and mental health.”
Despite the respected opinions of Benjamin and Zimmerman and other physicians, King said parents opposed to masks should continue to push back against mandates.
“Opinions change,” King said. “I’m inviting them [parents] to continue to reach out to their elected officials and to continue to spread a message of ‘First in Freedom,’ which is what our state is all about.”