CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Masks could be staying on a while longer in North Carolina classrooms after top health officials said COVID-19 spread is still too high in most communities for mask mandates to be removed, especially without a vaccine for kids.
New guidance from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) said schools will no longer need to require masks for vaccinated students and staff if COVID-19 spread is low enough. But the hope of ending mask mandates could still be weeks away, according to NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen.
She said the update to the StrongSchools NC Toolkit doesn't change the state's official recommendation that masks should be worn in the classroom. In fact, she said only two counties in the entire state meet the threshold of "moderate" or "low" viral spread for at least seven consecutive days. Neither of those counties is near Charlotte.
"It continues to say that for anyone who is unvaccinated, they need to be wearing masks," Cohen said Wednesday. "Remember, we don't even have vaccines yet for our 5- to 11-year-olds, and we've shown how few of our 12- to 17-year-olds are vaccinated. I think schools need to be keeping their mask mandates right now, that is not something to reconsider."
Cohen said 98 of the state's counties have high or substantial transmission rates, and her recommendation is that masks remain mandatory. As of Oct. 27, 45% of kids age 12 to 17 in North Carolina are vaccinated, according to NCDHHS data.
Five North Carolina school districts in the Charlotte area — Avery County, Cabarrus County, Lincoln County, Rowan-Salisbury and Union County Public Schools — do not require masks for students and staff.