RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) — Area students may find wearing a mask in classrooms to be optional these days, but it isn’t because state law is requiring that option.

Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday vetoed the “Free the Smiles Act,” which was passed last week by the General Assembly to remove a school board or government agency’s right to require masks and to specify parents as the sole arbiter of that decision for students.

Some parents in Triad nervous about schools dropping mask mandates
Some parents in Triad nervous about schools dropping mask mandates

Cooper said a separate state law passed just last year had given the oversight of this decision to school boards and that this new law served only political purposes.

“The bipartisan law the legislature passed and I signed last year allows local boards to make these decisions for their own communities and that is still the right course,” he said in a statement about his veto. “Passing laws for political purposes that encourage people to pick and choose which health rules they want to follow is dangerous and could tie the hands of public health officials in the future.”

SB 173 stated specifically that “a parent may elect for their child to not wear a face covering while on public school unit property and shall notify a public school unit of that election.” The law also said that any governing body or employee violating that policy would be held liable.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP, File)

Cooper said he had encouraged school boards to lift mask mandates, and all school boards across the Piedmont Triad have voted to rescind mandates. Guilford County Schools students first attended class without a mask being required on Tuesday.

“I encourage schools and local governments to end their mask mandates,” Cooper said earlier last week. “People and businesses should continue to make the best decisions for themselves, their employees and their customers. There are still some places such as healthcare, long-term care and public transportation where a mask will still be required because of the setting or federal regulations.”

He said school boards were acting “with the advice of health officials who see that COVID metrics are declining and vaccinations are increasing.”

House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) later issued a statement in response to the veto. “I am disappointed that Governor Cooper has vetoed this common-sense bill,” Moore said. All health care decisions for our students belong with their parents, not with politicians or bureaucrats.

“Actions speak louder than words, and the governor should do more than ‘encourage’ schools to lift their mask mandates. Return this decision back to parents.”

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth Board of Education, in making masks optional, noted requirements for symptomatic individuals, said COVID-19 testing would be available and asked that those wearing masks use N95 models.

Figures from NC DHHS show that about 71% of the adult population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. About 75% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, including 96% of those 65 and over. About 51% of eligible adults have received a booster shot.

Dolan Reynolds and Darryl Matthews contributed to this report.