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Will you need a mask in school this fall? Here’s what you need to know

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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.

With school gearing up to start for most students soon, one of the big questions on the minds of many parents and educators is: What’s the deal with masks?

Gov. Roy Cooper’s statewide mask mandate expires at the end of July, and masking requirements will now be the responsibility of local school districts. However, the governor, along with the state Department of Health and Human Services, recommends that all people in K-12 schools should wear masks regardless of vaccination status, including students.

But that is just a recommendation. As we’ve seen from multiple school districts, local leaders have different ideas about whether students should wear masks or not.

EducationNC has compiled a list of questions we’ve received about masks as well as the answers we could find.

CDC Guidance

One big question is: What is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying about masks?

As of July 9, the CDC recommended masks indoors for anyone older than 2 years old who is not fully vaccinated. But with the rise of the delta variant of COVID-19 (see more on the delta variant below), it revised its guidance this week to say that everyone in K-12 should be wearing masks whether or not they are vaccinated.

What are other states doing?

Until Cooper’s announcement that North Carolina’s mask mandate would be expiring, our state was one of only 10 that had a statewide mask mandate in schools.

According to this Forbes article from earlier in July, here are the other nine:

  • California.
  • Washington.
  • New Mexico.
  • Illinois.
  • New York.
  • Connecticut.
  • Delaware.
  • Virginia.
  • Hawaii.

According to the article, Michigan and West Virginia mandate masks in schools for the unvaccinated, and the following eight states have banned local districts from having mask mandates:

  • Utah.
  • Arizona.
  • Texas.
  • Oklahoma.
  • Arkansas.
  • Iowa.
  • Vermont.
  • South Carolina. 

What does the research say?

new report from the ABC Science Collaborative at the Duke University School of Medicine found that “North Carolina schools did an outstanding job preventing within-school transmission of COVID‐19.”

One of the keys to that outstanding job was the wearing of masks.

“Proper masking is the most effective mitigation strategy to prevent secondary transmission in schools when COVID-19 is circulating and when vaccination is unavailable, or there is insufficient uptake,” the report states.

The report covers the time period between March and June 2021. Vaccines weren’t available to students 12 and older until late in the school year, so for most students, masks were one of the only strategies for preventing COVID-19 transmission.

State Secretary of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen said during a recent press conference that only 24% of North Carolinians aged 12-17 are fully vaccinated. So, masks may remain a key strategy for many students.

See data on teen vaccinations here.

As for elementary-age students? Most of them can’t get a vaccine due to their age, so masks will remain a primary mitigation strategy for the time being. Whether or not districts will require them is a different question.

What do pediatricians say?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that those older than 2 years old wear a mask in schools unless they can’t for “medical or developmental” reasons.

The group lists the reasons it is recommending this, including the fact that many students are not eligible to receive a vaccine.

Other reasons include difficulty in keeping track of vaccine status in both students and staff, difficulty in enforcing masks policies for just the unvaccinated, worry about COVID-19 variants, and the benefit of masks in preventing other “respiratory illnesses.”

Delta variant

The delta variant of COVID-19 is becoming an increasing concern across the United States. It is more contagious and is one of the main drivers of COVID-19 infections in North Carolina, according to this article from The News & Observer.

The article reports that, as of last Thursday, 817 people were in the hospital with COVID-19, which is the most hospitalizations since mid-May. As of Tuesday, that number had already gone up to 943. You can go here for the most recent numbers.

The vast majority of infections are among the unvaccinated. About 94%, according to the article. “Delta has swamped all of the other types of COVID at this point,” Cohen said, according to The News & Observer.

Meanwhile, DHHS data puts the number of fully vaccinated individuals 12 or older in the state at only 46% as of Tuesday. Go here for the most up-to-date numbers.

Recent data also seems to show that unvaccinated children may be making up a fairly substantial number of new cases: 15.3% according to the Carolina Public Press. The article also reports that vaccines for children likely aren’t coming until this winter.

FERPA and masks

FERPA stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). At its most basic level, this law protects student’s privacy when it comes to their educational records. Now, under the most recent guidance from North Carolina DHHS, families aren’t required to give vaccination status to school districts, but districts may ask for voluntary submission. EdNC touched on this topic in this article on vaccinations among teenagers.

The question is: If students are told to put on masks because staff in the building know from their records that they aren’t vaccinated, is that a violation of FERPA? Would that be like telling everyone the student isn’t vaccinated?

Blair Rhoades, communications director at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said it would not be.

She said that just because someone is wearing a mask doesn’t mean they haven’t been vaccinated and some people who have been vaccinated may wear masks anyway in school.

“Further, FERPA’s health and safety exception would allow the school to disclose such information to any person whose knowledge of the information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals,” Rhoades wrote in an email.

Alex Granados

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