Cooper shares updated mask guidance for upcoming school year

RAEIGH, N.C. — In his first official COVID-19 briefing in several weeks, Gov. Roy Cooper shared updated mask-wearing guidance for K-12 schools across North Carolina to follow in the upcoming school year.

“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,” said Governor Cooper. “That’s the best way for them to learn, and we want their school days to be as close to normal as possible, especially after a year of disruption.”

At the conference Wednesday, Cooper announced an updated StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit.

The toolkit is aligned with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Academy of Pediatrics guidance, which urges that everything possible be done to keep students in schools and emphasizes continued masking.

“Studies have shown that masks can slow the spread of this virus among those who are unvaccinated -- that hasn’t changed,” Cooper said. “We know masks work. The health, safety and ability of our students to learn in person depends on school leaders following this guidance.”

The Toolkit suggests that schools with students in kindergarten through eighth grade should require all children and staff to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. Schools with students in 9th through 12th grades should ensure that anyone who isn’t fully vaccinated, including students, wear a mask indoors.

Cooper said that we “know from extensive research that the spread of COVID-19 in schools last year was low because students and staff wore masks.”

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said only 24% of those 12-17 are vaccinated. That means most high schoolers, at this point, would not be able to be unmasked.

Cohen also said school administrators may opt to make mask use universally required even in high schools, and the state supports that.

The Toolkit also updates additional measures for schools related to quarantining after COVID exposure, physical distancing, testing, transportation, cleaning and other considerations.

The guidance is effective July 30.

Cooper said local school leaders are responsible for requiring and implementing protocols in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit in consultation with their local health departments.

The mask mandate will remain in place for the Charlotte public transportation system. CATS is required to follow the FTA mask mandate requirements set to expire September.

North Carolina, like many other states across the country, is seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases among unvaccinated people.

With 1,434 new cases reported on Wednesday, the state has seen a 61% increase in cases over the past week. The percent of COVID-19 tests coming back positive rose to 7.3%, the highest since April.

To date, North Carolina has administered more than 9.5 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 56% of the adult population fully vaccinated. 60% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, including 86% of people 65 and over.

State health officials continue to urge unvaccinated people to follow CDC and NCDHHS guidance and wear a mask indoors.

The statewide mask mandate expires at the end of next week -- meaning North Carolina businesses where masks are required will get to make their own decisions about requiring masks.

“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.

State health officials said everyone, regardless of vaccine status, should still wear a mask in certain places such as public transportation and healthcare facilities.

“Get vaccinated right now if you haven’t. We are seeing the impact of the very contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 and it’s hitting those who are unvaccinated hard,” said Cohen said. “Schools need to use the additional safety protocols outlined in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit to continue to protect students and staff as we enter the new school year.”

NCDHHS is offering at-home vaccines for citizens with mobility issues. NCDHHS said people who can’t leave the house can call 1-866-303-0026 to schedule an in-home vaccine appointment.

Cases of the delta variant are increasing in North Carolina and the rest of the country, and as the new school year approaches, the debate over mask-wearing in schools is intensifying.

At least three school districts in our area -- Lincoln and Union counties and the Rowan-Salisbury school district -- have already voted to make masks optional this school year.

The Iredell-Statesville school district put out a note in June saying it anticipates that masks will be optional as well.

Stanley County Schools parent Taylor Ward said her eldest son starts kindergarten this year.

Ward said she is excited that the governor decided not extend his ordinance requiring students to wear masks in school.

“I’m relieved. I’m very relieved,” she said.

According to Ward, masks made it difficult for her son to focus.

“It was hard. It was stressful,” she said. “Honestly I think it should be a parent’s choice.”

The CDC has already recommended that only those who are unvaccinated should wear masks indoors at schools, but this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics said that all children older than 2 should continue to wear masks at school. Children under the age of 12 still are not eligible to be vaccinated.

Many local school districts are also waiting on the state health department and what their guidance will recommend.

The third $1 million COVID-19 vaccine lottery drawing will take place at 10 a.m. on Wednesday. The drawing will once again be done by a random number generator and it will take a few days for the department to verify and contact the winners of the $1 million cash prize and the $125,000 scholarship.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt released the following statement in response to updates made to the StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit:

“Today’s updates provide operational flexibility to school leaders and local officials regarding the health protocols and prevention strategies that are implemented in K-12 schools.

“Today’s guidance is critically important as school leaders are busy preparing for, or already in the midst of, a new school year. I’m also pleased to see that local-level decision-making will be restored and flexibility provided to local officials.

“As a proponent of local control, I’ve felt the decision on mask mandates should be made by those most in tune with their student population and know that superintendents, parents and school boards will act in the best interest of their students.”

(WATCH BELOW: Local teachers, students respond to mask guidance)