Gov. Roy Cooper speaks in March at a COVID-19 media briefing. Cooper is allowing the state's school mask mandate to expire at the end of the month, leaving the decision on masks to local school leaders.  (Image via NCDPS) Gov. Roy Cooper
Gov. Roy Cooper speaks in March at a COVID-19 media briefing. Cooper is allowing the state's school mask mandate to expire at the end of the month, leaving the decision on masks to local school leaders. (Image via NCDPS)

North Carolina state leaders will leave it up to local school officials to decide, but they’re strongly recommending masks for K-8 students and unvaccinated high schoolers. 

Masks were super-effective at halting the spread of COVID-19 in schools last year, multiple studies show, and unvaccinated students should again be required to wear them when they return next fall.

But this time, Gov. Roy Cooper said on Wednesday, it will not be up to him. 

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Cooper said he would let the state’s school mask requirement expire at the end of the month, and health officials were updating their guidance so that each school district had the flexibility to decide for themselves what to do.

In essence, the state is shifting from mandates to strong encouragement. 

The new guidance points out that masks kept transmission rates in schools lower than 0.1%, and that masks and vaccines remain the key to everything. 

“We know masks work,” Cooper said. “The health, safety and ability of our students to learn in person depends on school leaders following this guidance.”

So, among other things, school districts should: 

  • Make masks mandatory for grades K-8.
  • Masks should also be required for unvaccinated high school students.
  • And districts and schools should work to encourage vaccines for all eligible students, staff and their families.

The new recommendations come as the Delta variant, the most contagious of all the strains of the virus so far, is surging through unvaccinated North Carolinians and driving new cases and hospitalizations to their highest points in months.

Full doses of the vaccines continue to prove highly effective against Delta, but for the unvaccinated, the numbers look grim.

Children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine. 

  • Delta accounts for more than 80% of new cases in North Carolina, Dr. Mandy Cohen, the head of the Department of Health and Human services, said.
  • 94% of those cases are among unvaccinated people.
  • Only 24% of 12-17 year-olds have gotten the vaccine.

Some Good News

There are some good numbers, though. Sixty percent of adults in the state have now gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, Cohen said. 

One dose, however, is not enough. It takes full inoculation—and masks—to slow Delta. 

“We can take this step today because the science shows our focus on getting people vaccinated is working,” Cooper said. “But to keep moving forward – and to make sure that we keep saving lives – more people need to get vaccinated.”

The North Carolina Association of Educators, however, were not fans of the shift.

“This seems a very poorly timed decision,” the group said in a press release after Cooper’s announcement. 

“Our youngest students are still months away from being vaccinated and they are uniquely vulnerable to this more virulent strain of COVID. We continue to encourage all unvaccinated individuals to get their shot and wear masks whenever possible to protect themselves and others from this ongoing and still highly contagious pandemic.”