New federal health guidance is putting pressure on North Carolina to ease its school face mask requirement before most students return to classes in August.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated guidance on Friday saying fully vaccinated students and teachers don’t have to wear face masks in school. The CDC is only recommending continued masking of unvaccinated people in schools, which would include all students in elementary schools.
Prior CDC guidance called for “universal” mask use in schools. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper had cited that old guidance as a reason for continuing its face covering requirement.
“Masks should be worn indoors by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated,” according to the new CDC guidance. “Consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is especially important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained.”
The CDC guidance could pave the way for eliminating the mask requirement in high schools, where all students are eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine, and in middle schools, where most students can be vaccinated.
But vaccines haven’t been approved yet for children under the age of 12, which makes up the elementary school population.
According to state health officials, 25% of the state’s teenagers and 56% of all adults have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose.
NC one of few states that still require masks in schools
States across the nation required face masks to be worn in schools during the 2020-21 school year.
But North Carolina is now among only 10 states that still mandate face masks in schools, with two other states only requiring masking for unvaccinated students, according to Forbes. Eight states, including South Carolina, ban local districts from requiring masks in schools, according to Forbes.
North Carolina lawmakers could soon pass legislation that would allow K-12 public and private schools to make face masks optional. The “Free the Smiles Act” was approved by the House but was rejected in the Senate so that lawmakers from both chambers could work out a new compromise bill.
The legislation comes as some parents have held protests in front of the headquarters of the state Department of Health and Human Services and at school board meetings across the state urging the end of the statewide school mask mandate.
Among schools in North Carolina:
▪ Thales Academy, which operates private schools across the state, recently announced it would make face masks optional next school year, according to ABC11, the News & Observer’s media partner.
▪ The Harnett County school board voted to make face masks optional at its summer school program.
▪ The Haywood County school board passed motions opposing the school mask mandate and supporting the legislation to make the coverings optional.
▪ The Union County school board passed a resolution calling on Cooper to end the school mask requirement and for state lawmakers to step in if the governor didn’t act.
“We’re also very aware that more districts now want flexibility to react to the unique circumstances in their community,” Susan Gale Perry, DHHS chief deputy secretary, said at Thursday’s State Board of Education meeting.
“There is considerable variability across our state in communities and counties as far as the percentage of the population that is actually vaccinated.”
Perry said that DHHS will present updated COVID-19 school guidance this month that includes fewer recommendations and provides more flexibility for schools.
Masking, vaccination promoted
But Perry and state Health Director Dr. Betsey Tilson also said Thursday that face masks and getting vaccinated are helping to reduce COVID-19 transmission in schools.
Perry pointed to new reports from the ABC Science Collaborative that say proper masking is the most effective strategy to prevent COVID-19 transmission in schools when vaccination is unavailable or there are insufficient levels of vaccination among students and staff.
The collaborative is a partnership of Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill to help advise schools on how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Tilson also pointed to state data showing that almost all viral transmission of COVID-19 is now in unvaccinated people. From May 6 to June 28, unvaccinated people accounted for 99.2% of COVID-19 cases and 98.9% of COVID-19 deaths.
Viral transmission is lower in counties with higher COVID-19 vaccination rates.
“We do know that vaccination is the most protective thing somebody can do and will be the way our state, our country and our world gets out of this pandemic,” Tilson said.