Education

NC ending state mask mandate in schools, but officials urge masks remain in place for K-8 students, staff

Posted July 21, 2021 5:01 a.m. EDT
Updated July 21, 2021 8:12 p.m. EDT

— The statewide mask mandate for North Carolina's schools will end next week, but officials said Wednesday that they would like to see masks remain in place at elementary and middle schools and for any unvaccinated high school students and staff.

Gov. Roy Cooper said he will let the mandate expire July 30, when the current state of emergency order ends. In place of the mandate, the state Department of Health and Human Services issued an updated toolkit Wednesday for schools to follow to limit the spread of coronavirus as more students return to class statewide in the coming weeks.

"We want their school day to be back to as normal as possible, especially after the year disruption they just had," Cooper said at a news conference.

The updated guidance recommends that schools continue requiring masks indoors in grades K-8 because most of the students aren't yet eligible to be vaccinated. Also, masks should be required indoors for all unvaccinated high school students, staff and visitors.

"We want to show that, when you do get vaccinated, you are able to take off your mask, and we hope that will be an additional incentive for our high schoolers to go get vaccinated," DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said.

Less than a quarter of students ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated in the state, Cohen said, calling that rate "way too low."

"That means 75 percent of most high schools, if not more, are going to be completely unvaccinated," she said. "Got to get vaccines. [That's the] No. 1 absolute prevention, and if not, making sure folks are wearing masks."

State officials reported Wednesday that 60 percent of adults age 18 or older have received at least one vaccine dose, while 56 percent are fully vaccinated.

Cooper acknowledged that, while the new guidance strongly encourages who should wear masks in schools, there's no way to enforce it, and there's no repercussions for districts that decide to drop masks indoors completely.

Parents have balked at the statewide mandate for months, and lawmakers even drafted legislation that would preclude it for the 2021-22 school year, leaving the decision on whether to require masks in classrooms up to local school boards.

"There's going to be a big push all across the state ... to try to make sure this is in place because we know how important it is to make sure that these children are protected and that teachers are protected," he said. "We all know what to do. We need to all pull together and make sure we try to get it done."

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt praised the move, saying she prefers giving local school leaders more flexibility.

"The decision on mask mandates should be made by those most in tune with their student population, and know that superintendents, parents and school boards will act in the best interest of their students," Truitt said in a statement.

But the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's largest teacher organization, immediately panned the administration's shift on masks in schools, noting that the American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups have called for continued mask requirements.

"In the face of dramatically rising COVID infections among unvaccinated North Carolinians in the past several weeks due to the Delta variant ... this seems a very poorly timed decision," NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said in a statement. "Our youngest students are still months away from being vaccinated, and they are uniquely vulnerable to this more virulent strain of COVID. We continue to encourage all unvaccinated individuals to get their shot and wear masks whenever possible to protect themselves and others from this ongoing and still highly contagious pandemic."

North Carolina reported 1,434 more coronavirus infections on Wednesday, which is the highest one-day total in more than two months.

The state has topped 1,000 cases in five days in the past week, and the seven-day average of 1,043 cases a day has jumped 60 percent in the last week and has almost tripled in two weeks.

Statewide, nearly 700 people are now hospitalized with COVID-19, with about 200 in intensive care. The number of virus-related cases in hospitals has increased 43 percent from a week ago, while the number in ICUs has soared by 79 percent.

Cohen said officials might have to "revisit" the school mask requirements if coronavirus trends continue in the wrong direction and "we see that our school districts aren't keeping our kids safe."

Durham Public Schools will continue requiring everyone to mask up in class during the coming school year, regardless of vaccination status, district spokesman Chip Sudderth said. But the school board will review its pandemic protocols at an Aug. 10 work session, he added.

Millbrook High School Principal Dana King said a main concern of hers is how her staff will enforce the rules, noting it’s unclear if schools can require students to show vaccination cards.

"I’ve got every student's vaccination record uploaded in their file. I know when they got the measles [or] mumps. Why not just put it on that?" King said.

But without any proof of vaccination, she said, high schools have to depend on students to be honest about whether they need to wear a mask or not, and that prospect concerns many teachers.

"I had four teachers last year refuse to come in because they were scared," she said. "I think two of the four will either resign or figure something out, but it’s a real terror to some people – the thought of being around unmasked people.”

Wake County school board Chairman Keith Sutton agreed that enforcing the rules will be tricky.

"Some verification would be helpful. It puts our staff, our schools, our principals in a difficult position if we're just going by word of mouth," Sutton said. "Our staff and legal counsel is working on that and will give us some additional guidance, and we will make our decision based off of that information and recommendation."

Alicia Wheatley, a teacher at Leesville Road High School, said she hopes the district encourages all students to wear masks in school.

“I worry about making sure our schools are safe and healthy for all of our students. I would like to see students continue to wear masks,” Wheatley said. “I plan to be there as long as I can, as safely as I can.”

King said she worries that having classrooms full of unvaccinated teens will lead to another shutdown and a return to remote learning.

“It’s hard to outrun this thing," she said.

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