K-8 students and staff members and unvaccinated high school students and staff members should start the 2021-22 school year wearing masks indoors, according to updated state guidelines issued Wednesday.
Most districts, including Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, will begin on Aug. 23.
Gov. Roy Cooper’s announcement came on a day when the state reported 1,434 new COVID-19 cases, a two-month high fueled by the highly contagious delta variant. The state also reached a six-week high for COVID-19-related hospitalizations at 694, up 22 from Tuesday’s report.
The vaccination rate among people ages 12-17 is around 25%, and there is no vaccine for children under 12.
Though not a mandate or executive order, Cooper said he is calling on local school districts to implement the new protocols in what is known as the Strong Schools Public Health Toolkit. The toolkit serves as a guide for public schools on how to reduce transmission of the virus.
Cooper avoided answering questions on how the state will enforce mask-wearing.
Some area school boards, including those in Randolph County and Rowan County, have said masks will be optional for students and staff.
“We will give them the flexibility they need and the help they need to implement it,” Cooper said of the new protocols. “There’s going to be a big push all across the state from our office to try to make sure this is in place.”
A state mandate requiring masks in public schools expires on July 30.
Tricia McManus, the superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, said Wednesday that the district’s COVID-19 committee will meet next week to go over the new protocols.
One question is how high schools will determine someone’s vaccination status.
“We don’t have a process right now,” McManus said. “We’ve been waiting for the toolkit to be updated.”
In addition, McManus said she expects to talk with board chairperson Malishai Woodbury about a possible special called meeting of the school board, which is not scheduled to meet until Aug. 10.
For the last school year, the school board voted on protocols based on recommendations from the superintendent.
“We want to get word to parents at the end of July,” McManus said. “We know time is of the essence.”
Dr. Mandy Cohen, the secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said the state’s new protocol on masking in schools lines up with those recently issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Under the new guidelines, vaccinated students showing no symptoms will no longer need to quarantine if they come in close contact with someone with COVID-19. Unvaccinated students won’t need to quarantine after close contact if they and the person with COVID-19 were wearing their masks correctly.
A few other holdovers from last year’s guidelines include maintaining social distancing of 3 feet and promoting hygiene. The guidelines include some changes, such as allowing visitors to come into schools.
Those changes reflect a better understanding of what protocols were effective and those that weren’t, Cohen said.
The state warned that failure to implement the strategies could create conditions of high-risk for the spread of and exposure to the virus.
“Additional statewide action may be needed over time as we receive new data and the vaccine becomes available for children under 12,” Cohen said.
It’s unclear what impact the new guidelines will have on a piece of legislation known as “Free the Smiles.” That bill would give public, private and religious K-12 governing boards “the executive authority to determine the use of face coverings and any appropriate exceptions ... during the instructional day on campus.”
The bill would allow the governor to issue an executive order requiring masks for individual schools “to reduce the transmission of an airborne communicable disease during a state of an emergency.”
However, the proposed legislation would not allow a statewide mask mandate.
Given that the bill restricts emergency executive authority, it is likely that Cooper would veto the bill if it clears the legislature.
Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation, said supporters of the bill are likely to push for a final deal.
“As long as the governor believes he has the power to reinstate statewide mandates in the future, legislators concerned about executive overreach will be interested in reining in Cooper’s authority,” Kokai said.
“As a practical matter, local school boards that treat the governor’s ’strong guidance’ as a recommendation rather than a rule might be inclined to loosen mask restrictions. So North Carolina could move a little closer to the Free the Smiles goal, even if the legislation never reaches the governor’s desk,” he said.
Journal Reporter Richard Craver contributed to this story.