New N.C. guidance: Unvaccinated high schoolers, students through 8th grade should wear masks in school

The governor held a press conference Wednesday afternoon
Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 7:31 AM EDT|Updated: Jul. 21, 2021 at 7:40 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - North Carolina leaders say all students and staff in K-8 classrooms should be wearing masks indoors regardless of vaccination status while students and staff at high schools should wear masks if they’re unvaccinated.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and state health leaders provided the new guidance on mask-wearing in schools at a Wednesday afternoon press conference.

In the latest guidance, 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.

This guidance is effective July 30 and local school leaders are responsible for requiring and implementing protocols in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit in consultation with their local health departments.

“Local school districts should continue to protect students and staff by requiring masks outlined,” Cooper said. “The most important thing our state will do is getting all of our children back into the classroom safely.”

N.C. Health and Human Services updated its “StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit” for public schools, grades kindergarten through 12th grade.

“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.”

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

NCHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said only 24 percent of children between the ages of 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated. That, along with children younger than 12 being unable to be vaccinated, are the reasons for the updated guidance.

“Schools need to use the additional safety protocols outlined in the NC Public School Toolkit to continue to protect students and staff as we enter a new school year,” Cohen said.

This comes after health experts have differing opinions on masks in schools.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all children, ages 2 years and older, wear masks at school.

The CDC, however, says students who are vaccinated do not need to wear masks.

Locally, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools say the district is following state guidelines on requiring masks in schools.

“Staff will discuss this guidance and other recommendations provided by leading health professionals and organizations as we finalize decisions related to the opening of school for the upcoming year. Should our current practice requiring face coverings indoors for all students and staff change based on these recommendations, we will alert students, families, staff and media,” a statement from the school district read.

Union County’s school board voted unanimously to make masks optional.

“The Governor’s executive order that includes a mask mandate expires at the end of the month. The StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit provides school districts with various guidance, but no longer requires all students to wear face coverings. We will continue to implement health and safety protocols, including physical distancing, hand hygiene, etc., to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The Union County Board of Education’s vote to make masks optional for the 2021-2022 school year will begin Aug. 1,” a statement from the school district read.

Rowan-Salisbury Schools is also keeping masks optional.

“The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education’s decision to make masks optional effective July 12, 2021, remains in effect. In accordance with the Strong SchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit, Rowan-Salisbury Schools will continue to implement health and safety protocols, including physical distancing, hand hygiene, etc., to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” a statement from the school district read.

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

CMS parent Rebecca Ivanov believes masks should be optional across the board and says it shouldn’t be up to the schools to enforce it.

“You would have situations where you’d have some teachers who are masked and some who are not masked and I can see that causing a whole new can of worms because now you’re putting the burden on the school,” Ivanov said.

Shirley Harris teaches exceptional children and Pre-K in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, she’s fully vaccinated but says she’s keeping her mask on even if others are not

“Whatever they want to do but for me, as someone who’s an educator I will continue to wear my mask. I’ve been vaccinated but I still prefer to wear it,” Harris said.

When Executive Order 220 expires at the end of July, North Carolina businesses and other entities where masks are required will make their own decisions about requiring masks, with strong guidance provided by NCDHHS.

State leaders say 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 Secretary Cohen. “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.”

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

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