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K-8 students ‘should’ wear masks, according to Gov. Cooper, but districts can decide if they must

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Update July 29, 4:40 p.m.: Gov. Cooper changed state guidance to say all students and staff in K-12 schools should wear masks regardless of vaccination status. Read more here. See original article below.

Gov. Roy Cooper said in a press conference Wednesday that his mask mandate will expire at the end of the month and that local districts will be able to make their own decisions on whether students should wear masks. However, he said that students in grades K-8 should be required by their districts to wear masks.

“The most important work our state will do next month is getting all our school children back into the classrooms safely for in-person learning,” said Cooper in a press release. “That’s the best way for them to learn, and we want their school days to be as close to normal as possible, especially after a year of disruption.”

The state Department of Health and Human Services released new guidance Wednesday on COVID-19 precautions in the state’s public schools. That guidance is effective July 30 and is “aligned with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics guidance,” according to Cooper’s press release.

The guidance states that all people in schools teaching grades K-8 should wear masks regardless of vaccination status, including students. Students under the age of 12 cannot yet be vaccinated, but students ages 12 and older can be.

The new guidance also says that students in high school should wear a mask if they aren’t vaccinated, a suggestion that applies to school staff as well. State Secretary of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen said during the press conference that only 24% of North Carolinians aged 12-17 are fully vaccinated.

“We still have a long way to go,” she said. “Schools need to use the additional safety protocols outlined in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit to continue to protect students and staff as we enter the new school year.”  

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt released a statement in support of the new guidance Wednesday afternoon.

“Today’s guidance is critically important as school leaders are busy preparing for, or already in the midst of, a new school year. I’m also pleased to see that local-level decision-making will be restored and flexibility provided to local officials,” she said. “As a proponent of local control, I’ve felt the decision on mask mandates should be made by those most in tune with their student population and know that Superintendents, parents, and school boards will act in the best interest of their students.”

Truitt has been a vocal proponent of removing the mask mandate. When the ABC Science Collaborative released a new report in late June praising North Carolina’s efforts at preventing the transmission of COVID-19 in schools, she said that she hoped to see mask mandates removed by this fall.

One of the findings of the Collaborative’s report was that wearing masks in schools helped prevent COVID-19 transmission.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.