FOUR OAKS – A Johnston County high school teacher who refuses to wear a mask is speaking out about her stance and how Johnston County Public Schools has responded. Aurora Preston was looking forward to her sixth year as an English teacher at South Johnston High School. But things suddenly changed when she reported for the first teacher workday of the new school year. Aurora declined to wear a mask inside the school. Even with a medical exemption (which she does not have), officials reportedly told her, she would still be required to wear a plastic face shield. She said no.
Aurora and her husband, Joe Preston, of Wilson’s Mills spoke with Johnston County Report about what happened next.
“My wife refused to wear a face covering. She was told to go to your room and close the door. She was told (by administration) I don’t know if you are allowed in the building without a mask, that it was not an individual school decision and they had to call HR (Human Resources),” Joe Preston said.
“She was isolated for 3-1/2 hours in her room. The Principal came to her room and said he had spoken to his HR contact and was told she needed to go home. She was required to take a personal day that day, even though she had been at school all day. She was told to call HR from home and apply for a medical exemption or take nine weeks of unpaid leave. She was not terminated and still employed, but for the first quarter, after 9 weeks, it would be reevaluated. We are now having to pay for health insurance out of our own pocket,” Mr. Preston stated.
“They said they would send us the paperwork (for unpaid leave). I asked them to please send the policy that states this is the punishment for not wearing a mask. I told them we are not signing until we see a mask policy. I want to see a copy of a policy to enforce this type of action.”
Mr. Preston said Johnston County Public Schools Human Resources later emailed them a link to the NC Public Schools Policy Handbook June 2015 edition and was told to read the contagious disease section.
Aurora has approximately 30 days of vacation and sick days accumulated but was told by JCPS she could not use that time.
“I don’t blame the administration at South Johnston. They don’t know what to do. I blame the Health Board who gave this guidance to the school board, who voted on these guidelines. We are a two income household. We are losing that income and health insurance because of a system that waited until July 29th to have a vote on it, then waited 12 days later to vote on it when it wasn’t on the agenda. The principal didn’t know what to do. HR doesn’t have anything.”
It is such an absolute train wreck
“It is such an absolute train wreck. There are going to be other teachers who are going to be doing this. There are hundreds of kids who are going to be pulled out of school (because of the mask mandate). Our message isn’t to tell anyone you can’t wear a mask or get vaccinated. You go ahead and do it. We just don’t want anyone to tell us what to do,” Mr. Preston said.
Aurora Preston stands by her decision not to wear a mask in school. “I love what I do when it’s about connecting with and educating the students. They are amazing and always end up teaching me something too. The school board flipped their decision last minute to mandate masks for all students and staff right before teacher workdays started. I stand with educating myself and utilizing that to make informed decisions. Therefore, I have chosen to forego a mask in my daily life.”
“I entered school … and was immediately asked to put a mask on by Administration. I told him we should probably talk about that. I informed him that I am choosing to not wear any face coverings. He immediately said that is an HR issue and he had no choice but to send me to my classroom until we heard something. I feel like I should have just been sent home at that point.”
“I was emailed by (HR) offering me a medical exemption which is not what I wanted. I was then directed that my only option was to take nine weeks leave without pay.”
It’s not about educating children but following ‘guidelines’
“This is where I am at today. No word. No work. No pay. No nothing. All I know is that it’s not about educating children but following ‘guidelines’. And it seems if I’m not following there is nothing in place to warrant the punishment received,” Aurora said.
Superintendent, school board member response
In an email Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy said, “Johnston County Public Schools will not comment on confidential personnel matters. As you know, the Johnston County Board of Education voted at their August meeting to require all students, staff, and guests to wear face coverings inside all JCPS facilities and forms of transportation. The face covering requirement is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, the NC Department of Health and Human Services, and our local health department. Any individual who feels as if they need an accommodation to the face covering requirement should request an Accommodation Form, which can be provided by their administrator, and have it completed by their medical provider.”
Aurora Preston waived her confidential personnel rights to allow the JCPS board to respond to our story. Chairman Todd Sutton did not respond to our request for a comment. Board member Ronald Johnson did respond.
“First, we should thank Mrs. Preston and every other employee of Johnston County Schools. Mrs. Preston is making a choice and sacrifice to stand up for what she feels is the right thing to do. No matter if you agree or disagree with her, she is still a school teacher who has made the difference in the lives of children,” Mr. Johnson said.
Mrs. Preston deserves a choice. The people who disagree with Mrs. Preston deserve a choice. I think the only people in the wrong in this situation are the ones in elected positions, that includes myself. As leaders, or a governing body, we should have been searching for solutions to accommodate everyone.”
“When COVID started I came up with a plan that would sort and pair teachers with families who felt the same way about virtual and in person learning. I feel the same could be done for a mask or no mask scenario. It would be a site by site basis. That would mean a tremendous amount of logistical considerations. I get it, you can’t develop a plan like this overnight, but I sincerely believe in giving people what they want or what they feel is right for their family,” Johnson stated.
“I’m certain not many people will buy into developing different sites for different choices. Simply, it will take a lot of work and no one wants to compromise until they don’t get their way. I proposed the idea of choice and sorting into different sites last year when we were discussing Plan A, B, or C. I still think it is a good idea.”
“Mrs. Preston my personal message to you is thank you. Thank you for standing up for what you believe in, and doing it within the rules, and most of all being respectful. We will find a way and get back to normal.”
“Lastly, I want to thank everyone who has advocated for their beliefs in a polite and respectful manner. How we treat each other, especially those we disagree with, says a great deal about who we are as an individual and collective group,” Mr. Johnson said Monday.
The Preston’s said they’ve been sent photos of visitors and staff on the South Johnston campus without masks. To their knowledge, none have been punished or ask to wear a face covering.
A GoFundMe page has been established to help Aurora and Joe Preston and their family with the loss of income and out-of-pocket health insurance costs.