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NC state lawmakers take up bill to give local schools boards authority on face coverings in the classroom

The "Free the Smiles Act" aims to give local school boards the option to require or not require face coverings in schools.

NORTH CAROLINA, USA — Some North Carolina state lawmakers are pushing to give local school boards the authority on face coverings in the classroom.

It’s part of the “Free the Smiles Act,” which is making its way through the North Carolina General Assembly.

The legislation would give local school boards the authority to decide if masks are needed for the upcoming school year. The governor would be allowed to require the use of face coverings in individual schools, but would not be allowed to issue a statewide face-covering requirement in schools by executive order.

State Rep. David Willis, R-Union County, authored the bill, which is also known as Senate Bill 173. He said data he’s seen shows there is no significant risk of COVID-19 to children in the classroom, and face coverings are doing more harm than good.

“The mental health issue is much scarier than the risk of COVID is to these children, and that’s the focus that we need to have,” said Willis. “We’ve got a full year of data from the schools behind us. We need to be using that and looking at real-world examples of this… We need to do what’s best for these children, and it’s time to give them that option.”

Willis’ son, an eighth-grader in Union County, even testified in support of the bill on Tuesday.

"I can no longer receive reassurance from our teachers, not even a simple smile,” said Jackson Willis. “I cannot see or hear my friends with their masks on."

Rep. Willis said it’s time to free the smiles when students head back to school in the fall.

“I mean, we know their learning has been impacted,” said Willis. “We know their social and mental health has been impacted. It's time to give them the opportunity and the choice to remove those masks."

Language added to the bill Wednesday in a House committee states that mandatory face-covering policies applying in the first instructional month of the school year must be voted on no later than Aug. 1, 2021. If a mandatory face-covering policy is adopted at any time in the 2021-2022 school year, the local board must vote on whether to repeal or modify the policy monthly while it remains in effect.  

In response to the legislation, a North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) spokesperson wrote WCNC Charlotte in a statement, “We still have a large number of North Carolinians who are unvaccinated, most of whom are children. The Pfizer vaccine was only recently authorized for adolescents 12 and older, so it will take time to vaccinate this population. We need to prioritize protecting the children who have either not yet had the chance to be vaccinated, or are not yet eligible due to being under 12 years old. CDC continues to recommend that those who are unvaccinated wear a mask indoors, which includes the vast majority of K-12 students.”

NCDHHS also cited data showing the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant, which is a concern for people who are not vaccinated.

According to NCDHHS, the CDC currently recommends masks be worn in school, as well as other settings that serve children, including childcare and camps. An NCDHHS spokesperson said in a statement, “We will continue to look at the data to guide our decisions and will reevaluate our guidance if anything changes from the CDC.”

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Contact Kendall Morris at kmorris2@wcnc.com and follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.