NC governor, health leaders urge schools to return to in-person learning with mandatory face masks

North Carolina News

RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) — North Carolina leaders are urging schools to reconsider health decisions and bring students back to classrooms with masks regardless of vaccination status.

“The science is clear that children learn better when they attend school in person and the science is also clear that masks reduce COVID infections so we can keep them there,” said Gov. Roy Cooper. “The Delta variant is moving fast and I strongly urge school leaders who have made masks optional to reconsider and make them mandatory.”

Cooper, NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen and State Health Director Betsey Tilson made the recommendation in a letter sent to school boards that have not adopted the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit.

The toolkit recommends schools to continue offering in-person learning while requiring kindergarten through 12th grade students to wear face masks indoors whether or not they are vaccinated.

The State Board of Education approved the guidance effective July 30, but local school districts are responsible for establishing protocols with the help of local health departments.

“In-person learning is very important for the academic and overall wellbeing of our children,” Cohen said. “Following the recommendations in the StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit, school districts can greatly lower the risk of viral spread to children and staff in the classroom this year.”

“The highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly through North Carolina,” said NCDHHS Chief Medical Officer and State Health Director Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, M.D., MPH. “A layered approach to prevention, including universal masking, helps protect the health and well-being of students and staff and helps keep everyone in school – teaching, learning, and thriving.”

The full text of the state’s letter is included below:

Dear School Board Chair:

We are writing with an urgent request that you fully implement the health protections in the North Carolina StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit to protect students and staff in this new school year.

Keeping children and staff in the classroom full-time for in-person learning is essential and following these health guidelines is the best way to ensure it. None of us wants to close schools to in-person learning.

Because children under 12 cannot yet get a vaccine and the percent of children 12-18 years old who are vaccinated is low, all students, teachers and staff in grades K-12 should wear masks in schools regardless of vaccination status.

Our urgency is due to the rapidly increasing spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 in North Carolina. Unfortunately, COVID-19 hospitalizations have more than doubled over the past two weeks, cases have increased by more than 50% in seven days, and the number of people going to the emergency department with COVID-like symptoms is rising.

In addition, we are seeing increasing rates of infection in children. While it is still unclear if the Delta variant causes more severe illness in children than prior variants, we are seeing increasing hospitalizations for pediatric patients. In addition, we are still learning more about the risk of long-term complications in children.

Vaccines remain our best weapon to fight the pandemic, and we ask that you find ways to encourage your staff and eligible students to get vaccinated. Many of our counties lag the state and nation on vaccine uptake.

As you know, several school districts which had decided to make face coverings optional wisely have reversed course. Please join them and others by adopting strong health protocols.

We would be happy to join you and your county public health experts to assist with implementation. We know this year brings you challenges like no other, and we appreciate the work you are doing to educate our state’s children.

Sincerely,

Roy Cooper
Governor

Dr. Mandy Cohen
Secretary, DHHS

Dr. Betsey Tilson
State Health Director

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