Among local public schools, there is widespread compliance with health officials’ advice on how to slow the spread of COVID-19 and get kids back in classrooms safely. But a number of private schools and home school cooperatives are taking approaches that diverge from those guidelines.
Xpress has identified at least seven local K-12 institutions that are not requiring all students to wear masks as recommended by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services StrongSchoolsNC toolkit and county public health leaders. Some have rejected other coronavirus control and prevention measures as well, including isolating individuals with COVID-19 and recommending vaccinations.
Among WNC public school districts, only Yancey County Schools isn’t requiring masks. Both Buncombe County Schools and Asheville City Schools say they’ve enacted the toolkit’s precautions, including masking and rapid COVID-19 tests for students who may have been exposed to the virus.
Decisions to follow those recommendations, however, have in some cases come only after vociferous debate. After considerable public pressure in light of rising cases of the coronavirus’s delta variant among children, Henderson County Schools flipped its policy on Aug. 9 and began requiring masks. And on Aug. 13, the Buncombe County school board voted to make face coverings mandatory for all indoors regardless of vaccine status — a week after meeting attendees angry about the board’s decision to mandate masks at all claimed that members’ authority was invalid and held a vote to elect a new board.
Similar battles are raging across North Carolina. At least six of the state’s 115 public school districts have not made masks mandatory, and on Sept. 30, Superior Court Judge James Morgan upheld their right to do so. Opinions vary on whether home schools and private schools have the same legal right to choose their own path with measures beyond masks.
The majority of Buncombe County’s private schools are following the toolkit guidance, according to a September survey conducted by the county at the request of Commissioner Al Whitesides. Of 24 schools that responded to the poll, only four do not require universal mask-wearing for students and staff regardless of vaccination status. (An additional 11 private schools were contacted but did not reply to the survey, according to the county’s Health and Human Services Department.)
Masks are entirely optional at only one school that responded to the county poll, which did not identify itself. At Timbersong Academy in Weaverville, masks are optional for the vaccinated, while at Asheville Montessori School, masks are not required for children ages 3-4; the state toolkit recommends masks for everyone ages 2 and older. Emmanuel Lutheran School in Asheville requires masks only when COVID-19 transmission rates are substantial or high, as defined by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other rules can be found at private schools in other WNC counties. At Faith Covenant Christian Academy in Henderson County, the majority of students go to school unmasked, according to Principal Denise Walden. While she says the school has implemented many COVID-19 prevention measures, such as social distancing, deep cleaning and keeping the campus sealed from outsiders, its advisory council decided to make masks optional for students after reviewing the available science and medical knowledge.
Parents must sign a waiver for their children to opt out of masking. Faith Covenant also takes no position on parents vaccinating their children against the coronavirus, instead referring them to their family physician.
Kelli Herbert, head of Haywood Christian Academy in Waynesville, says that her school is also leaving the choice of whether to wear masks up to parents and students. “Our school data over the past year and half has shown a very minimal amount of COVID-19 within our school family and no known community spread,” she wrote in an email to Xpress. “Parents should be informed of the data and then be allowed to make an informed decision. If our school data shows an upward trend in cases within our school, we require masks during that heightened time.”
Stacie Saunders, Buncombe’s public health director, says schools are “strongly recommended” to employ COVID-19 prevention measures including masking, social distancing and ventilation. However, the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education notes that masking and other pandemic-related recommendations at private or home schools are left to the discretion of school administrators.
Saunders says that COVID-19 symptoms are generally quite mild in children, and no pandemic-related deaths in Buncombe County have occurred in anyone under the age of 25. (Nationally, 499 children ages 17 and younger have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to the CDC, representing a survival rate of over 99.99%.) But because children are at increased risk from the delta variant and can spread it to others in the community, she continues, it’s important for schools to take preventive action.
Since Buncombe’s schools resumed in-person instruction, Saunders says, the county’s proportion of COVID-19 cases among children 17 and younger has roughly doubled. As of Oct. 5, that population made up 24.5% of new cases, up from 12%-14% earlier in the year.
Many parents with the strongest objections to COVID-19 control and prevention measures have turned to home-schooling. Sara Burrows, a mother whose daughter attended Asheville Waldorf School last year, said in an email that she decided to home-school due to “dissatisfaction with the b.s. mandates turning our kids into zombies.”
“I put my kid in public school for three days and pulled her out after she came home crying for the last two because she couldn’t breathe, see or focus with a cloth over her face,” Burrows said. “Now I home-school along with four other families so our kids can continue to breathe oxygen and not be genetically engineered and injected with heavy metals.”
Jaydee Azavari and her husband founded The Appalachian Academy of Therapeutic Arts in East Asheville, which they describe as a transdenominational membership-based homeschooling cooperative, after their children were forced to comply with pandemic measures to attend their previous school in Asheville.
The Appalachian Academy, located on a 100-acre plot bordering Pisgah National Forest, instructs students in an open-air environment consisting largely of outdoor education or classes in tarps and pavilions. Azavari, the academy’s director, says that approach provides a safe and well-ventilated environment for students and staff without need for masks. To date, she says, there have been no COVID-19 cases among students.
“Quarantines, shutting schools down, remote learning, health screening — that created an environment of stress for my children,” Azavari says. “One of my children in particular became depressed. One of them is now behind a grade level in reading. There was, I would say, a lot of psychological disturbance in their ability to be children.”
Azavari argues that masks and many other recommendations in the state’s toolkit for schools cause more harm than good. She disputes the position, held by most local health officials and the CDC, that face coverings reduce COVID-19 transmission rates and says that masks can stymie children’s speech and emotional development.
Timothy Lingenheld, a writer and holistic health practitioner whose child is enrolled at the academy, says he would never send his child to a school that required masks.
“I think it’s unconscionable that we would put basically microplastic fabric dipped in ethylene oxide, one of the most carcinogenic substances on the planet, on their face,” he says in reference to surgical masks. “Or that we would have them put on cloth masks when we have numerous studies … showing that there is an entire petri dish of microorganisms that thrive in that environment.”
“They are telling us there is a one-size-fits-all approach to health, and that’s 100% not true,” he adds.
Masks are also optional at Classical Scholars, a home-school collective in Mills River. Teachers and students who wear masks are in the minority, according to Director Eliza Hardin. “We felt like parents of our students were capable of making a decision for their student that was in the best interest of everyone,” she says.
Classical Scholars students primarily study at home, and most only attend classes of 6-12 students one or two days per week. Hardin says the program thus doesn’t need to follow the state toolkit’s recommendations for traditional schools, adding that home-school parents take quarantine guidelines very seriously and Classical Scholars hasn’t had a significant number of COVID-19 cases.
While the program gives teachers the option to require their students to wear a mask, “none of them did it,” Hardin says. Classical Scholars has also steered clear of the toolkit’s recommendation to encourage vaccination among students and their families.
The state’s toolkit advises, “If a school does not require all individuals to wear a mask, they should ensure a layered mitigation strategy, including physical distancing, ventilation, hand hygiene, adequate access to diagnostic and screening testing and closely monitor for increases in COVID-19 cases.”
But the Appalachian Academy is rejecting many of those measures. The academy’s enrollment documents state: “This organization will not participate in contact tracing, quarantine, injection/vaccine tracking or the promotion of masks and social distancing. Please acknowledge that you accept and agree to these terms by checking the box below.”
“I’m waiting for any long-term safety data that would prove the safety recommendations and the toolkit support the health and well-being of children and are also not detrimental to the health and well-being of the children,” says Azavari. She believes the toolkit’s guidelines have hurt academic performance and contributed to record childhood suicide rates.
Test scores were down across North Carolina for all grade levels in the 2020-21 school year compared with 2018-19, as reported by EdNC. (Tests for the 2019-20 academic year were canceled due to the pandemic.) The state has not yet compiled suicide data for 2020 or 2021, but the most recently available information from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on emergency room visits due to self-inflicted injury show no substantial increase since the start of the pandemic.
According to Bailey Pennington, an NCDHHS spokesperson, approaches like those of the Appalachian Academy may be in violation of the law. While most of the toolkit measures are recommendations, contact tracing, quarantine, isolation and exclusion of students and staff with COVID-19 are considered “communicable disease control measures” by the state Commission for Public Health and are therefore legal mandates. But according to Azavari, the academy operates under the legal umbrella of an ecclesiastical trust, and it has the right to reject control measures under the religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment.
The Appalachian Academy has also taken a categorical stance against the toolkit’s suggestion to encourage COVID-19 vaccines. Parents are asked to sign a waiver that states: “We kindly ask that anyone receiving the experimental Genetic Modification Injection associated with SARS-CoV-2 [the scientific name of the virus that causes COVID-19] to please choose another school or camp to attend that resonates with this choice, as we do not.”
“We don’t know if it’s safe,” Azavari says of the vaccines, citing high numbers of reports to the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Events Reaction System. Through Oct. 1, VAERS had received over 778,000 reports of adverse events following about 400 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, including roughly 16,000 deaths and 75,000 hospitalizations; prior to the pandemic, the CDC averaged about 40,000 adverse event reports per year for roughly 317 million annual doses of all other vaccines. “We don’t know if there is any aspect of risk associated with being around those who have been vaccinated,” she adds.
According to the CDC, VAERS includes all self-reported health issues patients, health practitioners and vaccine makers submit after vaccine administration and does not by itself indicate a causal link between vaccination and any given issue. Due to those reports, officials are investigating several adverse events in association with the coronavirus vaccines, including allergic reactions, blood clots and heart inflammation. Additionally, the CDC notes that none of the COVID-19 vaccines being administered in the U.S. “release or discharge of any of the vaccine components in or outside of the body.”
As of press time, the federal Food and Drug Administration is deliberating whether to give emergency use authorization for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 5-12. Kids ages 12-15 can receive the Pfizer vaccine under an EUA. The vaccine is fully approved for those 16 and older under the brand name Comirnaty; Pfizer vaccine doses produced before the FDA’s full approval, which are made with the same ingredients and process as Comirnaty, are technically still authorized under an EUA. (The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are only authorized for emergency use in adults.)
Vaccination rates in schools are not formally tracked, but Saunders with Buncombe County says that 53% of the county’s 12- to 17-year-olds had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine as of Oct. 5 — a number she says is steadily increasing.