BEAUFORT — While a mandatory mask mandate for North Carolina will expire Saturday, July 31, Gov. Roy Cooper and the state’s top health official urged school districts Wednesday to still require younger and unvaccinated students to wear masks for the 2021-22 academic year.
It will ultimately fall on each school board to make the final call, which is why the Carteret County Board of Education has scheduled a special meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Croatan High School to make a decision.
Following the governor’s press conference Wednesday, County Board of Education Chairperson Clark Jenkins said he still believes local school boards should be allowed to make the final decision based on input from parents in their communities.
“I support Carteret County and the ability of our citizens to make well thought out decisions as it pertains to them,” he said.
During the press conference, Gov. Cooper and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Director Dr. Mandy Cohen urged school leaders to require masks for all kindergarten through eighth grade students and teachers while inside school buildings for the 2021-22 academic year.
In addition, they asked that districts require unvaccinated high school students and staff to wear masks indoors. Those in high school who have received COVID-19 vaccinations will not be required to wear masks.
The two further strongly supported all students being back in classrooms for the upcoming school year. They also exhorted everyone to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
Gov. Cooper further said his current executive order requiring all students and staff in all grades to wear masks indoors would expire July 31.
Dr. Cohen said the reason for the recommendations is there is no vaccine yet for students ages 12 and under, making it necessary for them to wear masks.
However, there is leeway for high school students and teachers who have been vaccinated. Currently, only 24% of those 12 to 17 years of age in North Carolina have received vaccinations, according to Dr. Cohen.
In addition, she said the minimum social distancing requirement in schools is being changed from 6 feet to 3 feet.
All of the recommendations are included in a new StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Tool Kit released to school districts Wednesday.
The Carteret County school board voted in June to rescind a portion of its safety policy that requires students and employees to wear masks for the 2021-22 school year.
In addition, last month, the Republican-controlled House passed a bill aiming to block Gov. Cooper from issuing a statewide mask mandate for schools, instead leaving the decision to local school boards. Senate Bill 173 is still in conference.
The state press conference comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising again due to the rapid spread of the delta variant, which has become the dominant strain in North Carolina.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidance this month to say fully vaccinated students and teachers do not have to wear masks. However, Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics released its own recommendations, calling for masks regardless of vaccination status.
Dr. Cohen said she based her recommendations on the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics.
The governor’s decision comes on the heels of an announcement by county school officials Monday that the district would not offer a virtual learning option to students in grades pre-kindergarten through eight for the coming school year. Online courses will still be available for high school students.
Superintendent Dr. Rob Jackson said the decision was made because a limited number of parents expressed interest in the option for the 2021-22 school year.
Reporter's note: This article was updated at 12:33 p.m. Thursday, July 22, 2021, to include information about the Carteret County Board of Education's special meeting.
Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.