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NC school boards could make masks optional, bypassing Cooper’s mandate, under new bill

A new version of education legislation proposed in the state House on Monday would allow local school boards to set their own masking policies for the upcoming 2021-22 school year.

Schools across North Carolina are currently considered at-risk settings that are still covered by the state’s scaled-back mask mandate, which was recently extended by Gov. Roy Cooper through the end of July. Under the new version of Senate Bill 173 that was introduced Monday by Rep. David Willis, a Union County Republican, school boards would be free to require masks, or not, at their own discretion.

“Decisions about face coverings for our students should be left to local authorities,” Willis said in a release. “Our school boards are in a much better position to implement policies that reflect their communities than Governor Cooper is in Raleigh. They should have the flexibility and authority to make those decisions.”

The proposed changes to who can set masking requirements would be in effect only for the 2021-22 school year, and Cooper would still be able to require masks or shutter certain schools or school districts in the event of rising case counts or outbreaks of disease, according to the release from Willis’ office.

The push by Republican lawmakers to free school boards to determine their own masking policies comes as statewide daily case counts and deaths from COVID-19 have fallen to levels not seen in nearly 15 months, since the beginning of the pandemic.

Slightly more than half of North Carolina adults, 52%, have been fully vaccinated as of June 21. That number is much lower for children between the ages of 12 and 17, who recently became eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccination under new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and who currently comprise just 3% of the number of North Carolinians who have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. Kids below the age of 12 have not yet been cleared to be inoculated.

State health officials like Dr. Mandy Cohen, the secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, have pointed to CDC guidance that recommends unvaccinated individuals continue to wear masks indoors. “That includes the vast majority of our children who are in K-12 schools and that will continue until the guidance changes from the CDC,” Cohen said at a June 2 news conference.

Cohen has said that if the CDC changed its guidance for masks in schools, state health officials would reevaluate the governor’s extension of the mask mandate. But some lawmakers and school districts have challenged Cooper’s authority to continue to require masks.

Earlier this month, the Harnett County school board voted to make masks optional for students and teachers participating in its summer school program. It isn’t clear if the county will face any consequences for choosing not to abide by the governor’s mask mandate, but that hasn’t stopped some parents in Wake County, the state’s largest school system, from pressing their school board to emulate Harnett County and make masks optional.

The bill affected by Monday’s substitute language introduced by Willis, SB 173, is currently being considered in the House K-12 education committee, after being passed by the Senate in March. The Senate-passed version did not contain the provision to give school boards the authority to set their own mask policies.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it at link.chtbl.com/underthedomenc or wherever you get your podcasts.

Under the Dome

On The News & Observer’s Under the Dome podcast, we’re unpacking legislation and issues that matter, keeping you updated on what’s happening in North Carolina politics twice a week on Monday and Friday mornings. Check us out here and sign up for our weekly Under the Dome newsletter for more political news.

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Avi Bajpai is an intern at The News & Observer covering North Carolina politics. He recently graduated from George Washington University and has covered a variety of topics including affordable housing, homelessness, and city budgets. He is new to Raleigh and is excited to explore the city and learn about its history and culture.

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