CDC says schools should fully reopen, with masks optional for fully vaccinated. What about NC schools?

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged schools on Friday to fully reopen in the fall, also saying that fully vaccinated students and teachers don’t have to wear face masks in school.

While the CDC also emphasized a return to in-person school last spring, this most updated guidance is the first with language explicitly stating the importance of offering in-person learning, even if all prevention strategies cannot be implemented at a school.

“For example, because of the importance of in-person learning,” the updated guidance says, “schools where not everyone is fully vaccinated should implement physical distancing to the extent possible within their structures (in addition to masking and other prevention strategies), but should not exclude students from in-person learning to keep a minimum distance requirement.”

The guidance also encouraged vaccine promotion as “the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic” and clarified that anyone not fully vaccinated should wear a mask indoors. In addition, the agency said screening testing, ventilation, handwashing, staying home when sick and cleaning and disinfection are also “important layers of prevention” at schools.

“COVID-19 prevention strategies remain critical to protect people, including students, teachers, and staff, who are not fully vaccinated, especially in areas of moderate-to-high community transmission levels,” the guidance says.

CDC also said local health departments and governments should monitor community transmission, vaccination coverage, screening testing and occurrence of outbreaks to make decisions on the level of “layered prevention strategies” such as physical distancing and screening testing. The guidance did not offer a roadmap for situations in which a school should not fully reopen.

In Chatham, most students had the option of returning to some form of in-person learning by mid-spring. At Chatham County Schools, students had the option to return to four days of in-person learning under Plan A starting in April, following new legislation requiring daily in-person learning for elementary students and allowing it for middle and high schoolers.

Under that plan, a mid-week planning/cleaning day was still allowed; CCS administration stressed how important that planning day was for staff teaching multiple groups of students (remote, hybrid). Next year, CCS will offer a standalone virtual academy, meaning students opting for online-only courses will be taught by teachers designated to that program.

While nothing has been officially announced by Gov. Roy Cooper or the CCS Board of Education regarding plans for next fall, both state and local officials have long pointed to the hope of returning to five days of “normal” in-person learning next year. Cooper said on Tuesday, at a vaccination stop in a Cabarrus County high school, he expects to issue a new recommendation for mask-wearing in schools soon, the Raleigh News & Observer reported.

“I want our schools to go back in the fall as normal as possible,” Cooper said.

At CCS, this year’s summer programming is offered completely in person.

For many students and teachers, remote learning was full of challenges, and the return to any form of in-person learning is welcomed. Still, parts of the new guidance is concerning to some community members, particularly as the World Health Organization recommended last month that vaccinated people mask in indoor public spaces out of caution as the Delta variant spreads. Additionally, emerging research suggests that vaccines might not be as effective for people who are immunocompromised — calling into question how such students and teachers will be protected at schools loosening masking mandates, even if they are fully vaccinated.

In North Carolina, Gov. Cooper previously cited the CDC’s old mask guidance for schools as reason to continue face covering requirements in schools, even as he lifted them in most other places.

North Carolina legislators could soon pass a law that would allow K-12 schools to make face masks optional. The “Free the Smiles Act” was approved by the state House but was rejected in the Senate, but lawmakers are working toward a potential compromise bill.

At least three N.C. school districts — Harnett, Rowan-Salisbury and Union County — have already defied Cooper’s current face mask mandate for schools by voting to make them optional, the N&O’s T. Keung Hui reported in a Twitter thread Tuesday.

“‘It’s masks today & vaccinations today. What’s it tomorrow?’ Hui tweeted, quoting Rowan-Salisbury board member Travis Allen on opting to make face masks optional. “‘If they can make your child wear a mask at school, or a teacher wear a mask & dictate they can’t have a public education unless they do, I think they can attempt anything.’”

While the CDC guidance does stress masking for individuals not fully vaccinated, some people have expressed concern over how that will be controlled, particularly with so many politicized views surrounding the importance of mask-wearing — despite research from the CDC, WHO and epidemiologists alike emphasizing the important role masks play in preventing spread among the unvaccinated.

In North Carolina, 56% of the state’s 12-17 year olds and 59% of all adults have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, according to the state’s vaccination dashboard as of Wednesday morning. It’s not yet clear if students 12 and younger will have the option to be vaccinated by the fall.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.


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