By Jeff Moore
Gov. Roy Cooper will allow existing state mask mandates to expire on July 30, but he’s recommending required masking for public school students in kindergarten through middle school. Cooper emphasized those changes during a Wednesday afternoon press conference on updated state COVID-19 guidance.
Cooper began the press conference encouraging vaccination and reporting that 60% of N.C. adults have now received the vaccine. The governor pointed to recent spikes in cases and hospitalizations related to the Delta variant as a source of concern, leaving the door open to future restrictions if the administration feels public health metrics deteriorate.
Even so, the current masking order will expire one week from Friday.
“As we enter this new phase, the current executive order will expire at the end of the month,” Cooper said. “Although we will no longer have a statewide mask mandate, we expect people to be smart, follow public health guidance, and do what works.”
The expiring mandate will affect schools, but also additional agencies and settings that have been subject to the mask mandate. As it relates to students being required to wear masks, the new guidance is artfully crafted to urge masking of K-8 students and staff.
“The guidance in the toolkit strongly states that schools should require masks indoors for everyone – students and teachers – in kindergarten through 8th grade,” said Cooper. “It also directs schools to ensure unvaccinated high school students and teachers wear masks indoors.”
From the updated guidance (emphasis added):
“All schools should:
Require all children and staff in schools K-8th grade to wear face coverings consistently when indoors. Schools K-8th grade should make mask use universally required (i.e., required regardless of vaccination status) given that all or most of the student population in those grades are not yet eligible for vaccination.
Because students cannot mask consistently during mealtimes, students should maintain physical distancing of a minimum of 3 feet to the fullest extent possible when actively eating. Consider having meals outside where risk of virus transmission is low.
Per CDC’s Order, require passengers and staff to wear a face-covering on buses, vans, and other group school transportation.
Ensure that face coverings are worn indoors by all individuals who are not fully vaccinated, including students grades 9th-12th, workers, teachers, guests, other adults and children age two (2) or older, unless an exception applies.”
The wording implications were quickly observed by the media, who pressed Cooper on the bottom line and what, if any, enforcement measures his administration could take to ensure all school districts maintain masking policies.
Cooper confirmed that with the mask mandate expiring, the new guidance represented the administration’s strongest recommendations for COVID prevention policies. In response to questions about school districts that may elect not to require masking of students, the governor admitted some jurisdictions may move in that direction but encouraged all districts to require masking until vaccination rates among minors increased.
The Wake County Board of Education voted earlier this week to require masking for all students and staff amid protests from parents and activists, while Union County and Rowan-Salisbury Schools have recently voted to suspend mask mandates, making them optional instead.
The semantic wrinkle sets up what is sure to be a healthy debate at local school boards across the state in coming weeks. Scores of school districts across North Carolina, including large districts such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, have yet to decide the masking issue, meaning such decisions will necessarily incorporate and debate the new guidance in making policy for the coming school year.
After reiterating the administration’s position that masking works to slow the spread of the virus, Cooper concluded by returning his focus to imploring more people to get vaccinated.
“The best way to stop the disease from spreading and keep our numbers down is to get more people vaccinated,” Cooper asserted. “We have made so much progress against this virus, and now is not the time to ignore it. Even if you have been vaccinated, take it upon yourself to encourage others to get a shot. I’m confident that we can clear whatever hurdles remain and emerge from this pandemic stronger than before.”
The current order expires July 30, and the new guidance will take effect. With that, the debate over masking in schools will fall back to the local level, where Republican lawmakers have argued the issue belongs.