Raleigh, N.C. — The statewide mask mandate for North Carolina’s schools will end next week, but officials said Wednesday that they would like to see masks remain in place at elementary and middle schools and for any unvaccinated high school students and staff.
Gov. Roy Cooper said he will let the mandate expire July 30, when the current state of emergency order ends. In place of the mandate, the state Department of Health and Human Services issued an updated toolkit Wednesday for schools to follow to limit the spread of coronavirus as more student return to class statewide in the coming weeks.
“We want their school day to be back to as normal as possible, especially after the year disruption they just had,” Cooper said at a news conference.
The updated guidance recommends that schools continue requiring masks indoors in grades K-8 because most of the students aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated. Also, masks should be required indoors for all unvaccinated high school students, staff and visitors.
“We want to show that, when you do get vaccinated, you are able to take off your mask, and we hope that will be an additional incentive for our high schoolers to go get vaccinated,” DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said.
Less than a quarter of students ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated in the state, Cohen said, calling that rate “way too low.”
“That means 75 percent of most high schools, if not more, are going to be completely unvaccinated,” she said. “Got to get vaccines. [That’s the] No. 1 absolute prevention, and if not, making sure folks are wearing masks.”
State officials reported Wednesday that 60 percent of adults age 18 or older have received at least one vaccine dose, while 56 percent are fully vaccinated.
Cooper acknowledged that, while the new guidance strongly encourages who should wear masks in schools, there’s no way to enforce it, and there’s no repercussions for districts that decide to drop masks indoors completely.
Parents have balked at the statewide mandate for months, and lawmakers even drafted legislation that would preclude it for the 2021-22 school year, leaving the decision on whether to require masks in classrooms up to local school boards.
“There’s going to be a big push all across the state … to try to make sure this is in place because we know how important it is to make sure that these children are protected and that teachers are protected,” he said. “We all know what to do. We need to all pull together and make sure we try to get it done.”
The North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s largest teacher organization, immediately panned the administration’s shift on masks in schools, noting that the American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups have called for continued mask requirements.
“In the face of dramatically rising COVID infections among unvaccinated North Carolinians in the past several weeks due to the Delta variant … this seems a very poorly timed decision,” NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said in a statement. “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.”
North Carolina reported 1,434 more coronavirus infections on Wednesday, which is the highest one-day total in more than two months.
The state has topped 1,000 cases in five days in the past week, and the seven-day average of 1,043 cases a day has jumped 60 percent in the last week and has almost tripled in two weeks.
Statewide, nearly 700 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, with about 200 in intensive care. The number of virus-related cases in hospitals has increased 43 percent from a week ago, while the number in ICUs has soared by 79 percent.
Cohen said officials might have to “revisit” the school mask requirements if coronavirus trends continue in the wrong direction and “we see that our school districts aren’t keeping our kids safe.”
The state’s vaccination rate ranks 37th nationally. Nationwide, 59 percent of people are fully vaccinated, and 68 percent have had at least one dose.
Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease expert with UNC Health, called the state’s vaccination rate disappointing.
Wohl said doctors are trying to get through to patients, warning them about how dangerous the Delta variant of the virus is but aren’t always successful.
“There’s a lot of information out there, and people don’t always believe it,” he said. “How many hours do doctors spend talking to people about flu shots and getting a lot of pushback that ‘the flu shot gave me the flu.’ That kind of misinformation or thinking, we’ve encountered before, but now the consequences are so much higher.”
Read More: NC ending statewide mask mandate in schools, but officials urge masks to remain in