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'When does the madness end?' Former Panthers star Greg Olsen among those worried about long-term impacts of pandemic

As COVID cases continue to drop in North Carolina and more kids getting vaccinated, some parents are wondering when masks won't be needed in schools.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As COVID-19 cases continue to decrease in North Carolina, there has been a lot of discussion about masks in the classroom and when they could go away entirely. 

There's no statewide mandate in North Carolina and districts in the Charlotte area are somewhat split on policies for students and teachers. 

Currently, the entire state of North Carolina is in the CDC's "red zone," meaning there's high community spread of COVID-19. That's when health experts really recommend masking. That's why several school districts put masking policies back in place recently. 

But as cases start to go down, some parents are wondering how long COVID-19 precautions will be in the classroom. Those parents include former Carolina Panthers star Greg Olsen, who tweeted a photo of kids eating lunch spread out in a school parking lot asking, "when will the madness end?"

Olsen later clarified that he's not against vaccines but is concerned about the long-term impacts masking and social distancing in schools will have on children. 

North Carolina state health officials haven't required masks in schools, instead allowing districts to make their own policies, with many relying on the state's Strong Schools NC Toolkit to make those decisions. 

"If they're still in high or substantial transmission, our recommendation is to have universal face covering," Dr. Betsey Tilson with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said. "Once they drop below substantial, then they can consider moving to optional."

During an update at Thursday's state board of education meeting, Tilson, who is North Carolina's state health director, said there's been an increase in clusters at K-12 schools. 

That's why some experts, including Crystal Watson, a public health risk assessment researcher at Johns Hopkins University, believe masks need to stay for now. 

"I think one component of this decision will be when can the youngest kids, and all kids really, have the opportunity to be vaccinated?" Watson said. "Once that occurs and we have lower levels of transmission, I think we can have these discussions about masking in schools."

Another good sign? Vaccination rates are going up in North Carolina, especially for young people. 

"North Carolina does have the highest rate of vaccinations for our youngest population as compared to other southeastern states," Tilson said. 

As part of its COVID-19 guidance, school districts are required by North Carolina law to vote on mask policies once a month. The state also plans to distribute 1 million N95 masks to schools.  

Contact Chloe Leshner at cleshner@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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