Updated N.C. guidance strongly recommends, but doesn't mandate, masks for K-8 schools

Will CDC's new, stricter guidance recommending universal masking in schools change that guidance?

BY HANNAH McCLELLAN, News + Record Staff
Posted 7/27/21

School districts should require masks indoors for all students and staff in elementary and middle schools, and for unvaccinated students and staff, Gov. Roy Cooper announced last Wednesday.

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Updated N.C. guidance strongly recommends, but doesn't mandate, masks for K-8 schools

Will CDC's new, stricter guidance recommending universal masking in schools change that guidance?

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School districts should require masks indoors for all students and staff in elementary and middle schools, and for unvaccinated students and staff, Gov. Roy Cooper announced last Wednesday.

With Cooper’s current executive order — which includes a mask mandate in schools and settings like health care, public transportation and prisons — set to expire at the end of this month, masking in schools will no longer be mandated, however. 

“Although we will no longer have a statewide mask mandate, we expect people to be smart, follow public health guidance and do what works,” Cooper said Wednesday on Twitter. “Today, we are releasing strong protocols for schools as they plan for the year ahead. Local school districts should continue to protect students and staff by requiring masks and testing as outlined in (NCDHHS guidance)...”

The update came as COVID-19 cases across the state increased by nearly 60% (an increase of about 2,700 cases) that week, something officials are widely attributing to the Delta variant, with an increase in cases also occurring in Chatham.

The statewide mask mandate was lifted in May after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance, save for a few specific settings — including schools. Earlier this month, the CDC again updated its guidance, saying masks should be optional for fully vaccinated students and staff. A few days later, Cooper said he expected to release updated recommendations soon.

Less than a week after Cooper’s July 21 recommendation, the CDC reversed its guidance, instead recommending on Tuesday that people vaccinated for the coronavirus resume wearing masks indoors in parts of the country with "substantial" or “high” transmission (which includes more than half of U.S. counties, including Chatham, with substantial transmision) and that everyone in K-12 schools should wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status. It's unclear whether such a recommendation would again change the state’s guidance to schools and businesses.

In its updated school guidance, the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services Wednesday said all K-8 schools “should make mask use universally required,” given that students in those schools are not eligible to be vaccinated. Only the Pfizer vaccine is currently available to people who are 12 or older; Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are for people 18 and older.

That guidance also says all schools should require passengers and staff to wear a mask on buses and other group school transportation.

Cooper said local school leaders are responsible for requiring and implementing recommended protocols in coordination with their local health departments. The guidance is effective July 30.

‘Do it safely’

Leadership from Chatham’s public and private schools have closely aligned COVID-19 protocol with state and local recommendations.

Within Chatham County Schools, with public student enrollment of more than 8,500, the Board of Education routinely consulted local and state guidance and research in navigating decisions about returning to in-person learning. Though the board won’t be mandated to require masks under the new guidelines, not doing so with current recommendations in place would mark a large departure from past decision-making.

While the board hasn’t officially announced plans for next fall, local officials have long pointed to the hope of returning to five days of “normal” in-person learning next year. This year’s summer programming — which concludes Thursday — was 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 welcomed. Still, some people worry new guidance leaves too much wiggle room for local institutions. These concerns come as the Delta variant spreads and emerging research suggests vaccines might not be as effective for immunocompromised people. Additionally, some wonder how mask requirements for unvaccinated people will be enforced.

Last month, state legislators introduced 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; it’s unclear if lawmakers will continue working toward a compromise bill following the state’s updated guidance.

At least three N.C. school districts — Harnett, Rowan-Salisbury and Union counties — defied Cooper’s face mask mandate for schools before it was removed by voting to make them optional, the Raleigh News & Observer’s T. Keung Hui reported in a Twitter thread last week.

“‘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.’”

In Chatham, the board did not explicitly discuss COVID-19 protocol next fall at its meeting last week, but it did approve a motion lifting the suspension of field trips, after school activities, facility rentals, and school access for visitors and volunteers. Those suspensions were put in place in spring 2020 in response to COVID-19.

That meeting began with public comments from parents calling on the school board to make mask-wearing optional for CCS students next fall. 

Last Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics joined the CDC in calling for in-person learning to fully resume, but departed from the institution in saying that universal masking should be part of a “layered approach to make school safe for all students, teachers and staff.” 

“Our children need to get unmasked, OK, if not, if you do not unmask our children, you better come up with some money to help provide for them in the future for their social, emotional and mental stress that they’re going to have in the future,” said one speaker, Edie Jacomet, “because they will — they will, mark my words, so I’m just asking you, please unmask our children.”

While COVID-19 data suggests young children are less likely to get COVID-19 and to spread it, epidemiologists have long cited mask-wearing as an essential protection against spread of infection among unvaccinated people. Data also suggests the Delta variant is more contagious than other strains.

Cooper echoed the importance of mask-wearing last Wednesday, stating that masks and vaccinations would help keep students in the school building.

“The most important work our state will do next month is getting all our school children back into the classrooms safely for in-person learning. That’s the best way for them to learn, and we want their school days to be as close to normal as possible after a year of disruption,” Cooper said. “Getting our kids back in the classroom for full-time, in-person instruction is critical. And this health guidance will help schools do it safely.”

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

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