RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN)– As COVID-19 cases in North Carolina continue to increase, Gov. Roy Cooper has announced strong protocols for schools amid the pandemic.
The executive order on mask mandates will expire at the end of the month, but Cooper said he has outlined strong protocols that are recommended for schools to follow.
“Studies have shown that masks can slow the spread of this virus among those who are unvaccinated – that hasn’t changed. We know masks work. The health, safety and ability of our students to learn in person depends on school leaders following this guidance,” Cooper said.
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Sec. Dr. Mandy Cohen said K-8 grades should require all children and staff to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
For ninth through 12th graders, schools should make sure those who are not vaccinated wear a mask indoors, Cohen said.
“With only 24 percent of North Carolinians ages 12 to 17 fully vaccinated, and because anyone under the age of 12 cannot be vaccinated yet, we still have a long way to go,” Cohen said.
“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 high schoolers to go get vaccinated,” Cohen said.
In the toolkit, the state also outlined new COVID-19 quarantine guidance.
“Anyone who is fully vaccinated and does not have symptoms does not have to quarantine after a close-contact with someone who has COVID-19. In addition, unvaccinated students do not have to quarantine after close-contact if students were appropriately and consistently wearing masks,” Cohen said.
The toolkit also has measures regarding social distancing, COVID-19 testing, cleaning, transportation guidance and more.
Cohen said the toolkit also took out a number of protocols that don’t have benefits so schools can focus on what works.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidance this month to say that fully vaccinated students and teachers do not have to wear masks. However, on Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics released its own recommendations, calling for masks regardless of vaccination status.
As part of the state’s public health toolkit, masks are currently required for everyone in schools age five and older unless an exception applies.
Last month, the Republican-controlled House passed a bill aiming to block Gov. Roy Cooper (D) from issuing a statewide mask mandate for schools, instead leaving the decision to local school boards.
A handful of members of the House and Senate have been meeting recently to draft a compromise version of the bill to vote out of the legislature, but they say they are awaiting a decision by Cooper and state health officials regarding the upcoming school year.
The North Carolina Association of Educators criticized the updated guidance, calling it “very poorly timed” in light of the recent rise in cases.
“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,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly.
Cooper responded to that by pointing out he prioritized teachers early on in the vaccination process and called the revised protocols would protect students and teachers.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt (R) said she’s glad local officials will have control to decide what steps to take.
“Today’s guidance is critically important as school leaders are busy preparing for, or already in the midst of, a new school year. I’m also pleased to see that local-level decision-making will be restored and flexibility provided to local officials,” she said.
As for individual districts, Durham Public Schools will be requiring masks for all students and faculty, regardless of grade or vaccination status. The district’s Chief Communications Officer Chip Sudderth said the district looked at the comfort level of parents, students, and staff.
“We know that not every student is vaccinated, not every staff member is vaccinated, and that universal masking is simpler. It’s a small inconvenience with huge benefits for health and safety,” Sudderth said.
The following school districts tell CBS 17 they have not yet decided on a mask policy for the upcoming year or are still reviewing the governor’s guidance:
- Chapel Hill-Carrboro
- Johnston County
- Nash County
- Sampson County
- Wake County
The Harnett County School Board voted to make masks optional for summer school. CBS 17 asked the district if that will be the policy for the upcoming year, but has not heard back.
Cooper and NCDHHS did not specify what would happen if a district did not follow the guidance, but said it will work with districts to implement the mask protocols.