DHHS still backs masks in schools, but says districts can drop mandates if local viral spread is low enough

Posted October 27, 2021 1:34 p.m. EDT
Updated October 27, 2021 8:06 p.m. EDT

— Schools no longer need to require masks for vaccinated students and staff if coronavirus spread in their communities is low enough, North Carolina health officials wrote in a guidance document published this week.

But Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said Wednesday that the update to the StrongSchools NC Toolkit doesn't change the state's official recommendation that masks be worn in schools.

"The vast majority of our students are unvaccinated," Cohen said at a news conference. "You've got to do other things to protect each other, and the top of the list there is wearing masks."

Only 42 percent of youths ages 12 to 17 have been vaccinated in North Carolina. Younger children can't yet get vaccinated, although that could change in the next week or so.

DHHS was only trying to provide a forecast for school districts as pandemic-related trends continue to improve, Cohen said.

"Out on the horizon, there are opportunities for us to think about stepping that back," she said of masks in schools. "But we're not close to that yet."

“Schools need to be keeping their mask mandates right now. That is not something to reconsider," she added.

School districts already can make masks optional – state law requires school boards to review mask policies monthly – but the large majority chose not to this fall as coronavirus' delta variant caused a surge of infections statewide. School board members in various districts also noted potentially high numbers of quarantined students and teachers if people didn't wear masks.

Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, agreed that masks need to remain in place in schools for now.

"[Ending a mask mandate] is a decision we are looking at with a bit of trepidation. Many of our students are still unvaccinated," Walker Kelly said.

The updated guidance, dated Oct. 25, states: "Given that our student population is largely not yet vaccinated, face coverings remain a critical tool for protecting children and keeping them safely in the classroom. NCDHHS recommends that schools base their mask requirements on levels of community transmission, as defined by the CDC."

Only two counties currently meet the threshold of "moderate" or "low" viral spread for at least seven consecutive days – Hyde County on the coast and Cherokee County in the mountains – where they could drop a mask mandate under the updated guidance. North Carolina's other 98 counties continue to have "high" or "substantial" transmission rates.

Orange, Chatham, Person and Nash counties all have substantial spread of the virus, based on their numbers of cases per 100,000 residents and percentages of positive virus tests. If the case counts drop slightly in each and the positive rate in Nash County declines below 5 percent, all four could move into the moderate spread category, allowing them to consider the updated guidance.

Wake County, by comparison, would have to cut its case count by more than half to get into the moderate spread category. It already has a low enough positive rate on virus tests.

”It is going to have to be situation-dependent, looking at multiple factors, trying to make the wisest decisions possible to maximize health,” Wake County school board member Jim Martin said of deciding when to end the district's mask mandate.

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