CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday that schools are strongly recommended to require face masks for most students and teachers as COVID-19 metrics continue to rise across the state.
"The guidance in the toolkit strongly states that schools should require masks indoors for everyone, students and teachers in kindergarten through 8th grade. It also directs schools to ensure unvaccinated high school students and teachers wear masks indoors," Gov. Cooper said during a news conference.
Cooper also said data shows that masks helped prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools during the last academic year.
"These protocols can be put in place to help be able to keep children in school, which is critical," Cooper said. "These masks can prevent an outbreak in a school that would cause the school system to have to make a decision to send children home don’t want to do that."
The new guidance from the state strongly encourages districts to require masks for students and teachers in kindergarten through eighth grade. Unvaccinated high school students are recommended to wear masks while at school. Ultimately, it is up to the individual districts to decide.
"Local school districts should protect students and staff by requiring masks and testing as outlined by Dr. Mandy Cohen," Cooper said.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary for the state's Department of Health and Human Services, said only 24% of kids age 12-17 are vaccinated against COVID-19. Currently, the vaccines are only available to children at least 12 years old.
They're hoping these protocols will be an incentive for more teens to get the shots.
"That means 75% of most high schools if not are going to be completely unvaccinated so we've got to get vaccines number 1, absolute prevention, and if not making sure folks are wearing masks," Cohen said.
New guidelines include social distancing being reduced to 3 feet and the removal of some protocols that were previously in place.
The governor said the delta variant has driven a rise in COVID-19 cases across North Carolina over the past three weeks. NCDHHS reported 1,434 new cases Wednesday, with 7.9% of tests coming back positive. There are 694 people hospitalized statewide with the virus. Cooper said 60% of adults in North Carolina have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
"We pray for those who are sick, the people we've lost and the ones they've left behind," Cooper said. "The best way to combat this pandemic is with vaccines."
Earlier this summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said vaccinated students and teachers don't need masks in school. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended every child still mask up at school.
Some middle schoolers are eligible to get vaccinated but the state wants them all to wear a mask anyway.
It's not so clear-cut in high school, and raises some questions for teachers.
"I would wonder if a student is unmasked, are they not wearing a mask because they don't want to wear a mask? Are they really vaccinated? And how am I supposed to as their teacher, track that and ensure that we're being as safe as possible in my classroom?" Justin Parmenter, a CMS teacher, said.
Parmenter and other teachers across the state now have to wait for their own districts to decide. CMS had been waiting for Cooper to release his guidance. The next scheduled board of education meeting is Aug. 10.
"It's a combination of hope and trepidation. You know, there's there are a lot of unknowns. We're not out of the woods yet, but at the same time, things are looking a lot better than they were I would say in most ways," Parmenter said.
Union County schools previously voted to make masks optional. An official told WCNC Charlotte they do not expect to change those plans now.
"It's much more disruptive to have an outbreak of 100 kids with COVID-19 in a school than it is to wear a mask," Dr. David Priest with Novant Health said. "It just is. I think kids can go in person but I think masks make a lot of sense"
Several local school districts have already decided to make masks optional, leaving parents to decide what is best for their child, including Union County Public Schools.
Union County Public Schools
Union County Public Schools told WCNC Charlotte's Hunter Sáenz their decision stands even after the governor's recommendations were announced and they do not plan on revisiting the matter.
Rowan-Salisbury Schools put out a statement after the governor's recommendation that said in part, "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."
"School districts, some will say hey it is optional and parents will have to make the call," Priest said. "They're increasing the likelihood their kid can get through the school year in person if that child is masked."
Watauga County Schools
Superintendent Dr. Scott Elliott of Watauga County Schools said in a statement in part, "Over the next few days, we will review the updated guidance from NCDHHS and make a determination about the health and safety procedures we will have in place for the coming school year. We will seek the advice of local public health and medical professionals in order to make the best decisions possible."
He went onto say, "For now, we continue to encourage everyone to get vaccinated."
Newton-Conover City Schools
Newton-Conover City Schools officials said they have not made a decision based on the new guidelines at this time, and added the school board will make a decision sometime later this month or early August.
Alexander County Schools
Alexander County Schools said the district has not had "adequate time to review the toolkit."
A spokesperson for the district said once they review it, a recommendation will be made to the school board and they will have the final determination. There was no timeline on when that would happen.
Caldwell County Schools
Caldwell County school officials echoed what several other area districts mentioned, explaining they are carefully reviewing the updated StrongSchools NC Public Health Toolkit released Wednesday.
The next Board of Education meeting for Caldwell County Schools is scheduled for Aug. 3. WCNC Charlotte was told if there is a called meeting prior to this date, we would be notified.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools released the following statement:
"As we approach the new school year, our commitment is to provide as many students the opportunity to learn in-person every day as possible. Keeping students and staff healthy is our highest priority as we consider how best to operate as we open our buildings for 2021-2022.
The new Strong Schools NC Toolkit shared today states that schools should require face coverings for many students and staff while in indoor settings or while using school transportation.
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."
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