Governor, however, expresses skepticism about GOP bill that would remove authority from local school boards
Citing improving COVID-19 trends and the availability of effective vaccines, Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday urged school boards to end indoor masking mandates beginning March 7.
The governor made his remarks during an afternoon news conference, where he was flanked by state health officials.
“We are taking a positive step on mask requirements to help us move safely toward a more normal day to day life,” Cooper said. “It’s time to focus on getting our children a good education and improving our schools, no matter how you feel about masks.”
State Health and Human Services Secretary Kody H. Kinsley said the recommendation to end mask mandates is based on encouraging data and trends.
North Carolina has administered over 15.7 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 71% of the adult population fully vaccinated, according to a N.C. Department of Health and Human Services press release.
Roughly 75% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, including 96% of North Carolinians 65 and over. About half of eligible adults have received booster shots.
“At this time, the most effective tools are vaccines and boosters. Everyone five and older should get a COVID-19 vaccine and everyone 12 and older should get a booster as soon as they are eligible,” Kinsley said.
Cooper’s news about school mask mandates comes as more and more districts across the state end the requirement.
It also comes as the state’s Republican leadership has revived a bill to make face masks optional for North Carolina’s 1.5 million schoolchildren. Under the proposed law, school districts would no longer be able to require masks.
House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), said the bill protects school districts. It also clarifies that children can’t be forced to wear masks; nor can they treated differently from children who choose to wear them, Moore said.
“But most importantly, it is going to reaffirm the absolute right that parents should be the ones making these decisions for their children and not the government,” Moore said.
Both the state House and state Senate passed Senate Bill 173, the Free the Smiles Act, on Thursday.
When asked about it during the news conference, Cooper called the legislation “unwise and irresponsible.”
“I mean are we going to let people pick and choose which public health rules they are going to follow?” the governor said. “I’ll review it if they pass it and I see it, but I certainly have concerns about what I’ve heard.”
Cooper noted that he ended mask mandates in the spring, leaving it to school districts to decide whether to require face coverings. Raleigh’s News & Observer reported that districts are about evenly split between those requiring masks and those that do not.
“I think local control is important here,” Cooper said. “The legislature passed a law and I signed it giving local school boards control of this situation and I think they should continue to have that control.”
Cooper said he’s confident most school boards will consider lifting face mask requirements.
The move to end mask mandates in state schools comes as districts across the country are dropping the requirement as omicron cases and hospitalizations fall.
Mask mandates have been a particularly contentious issue with parents, some whom say masks harm students academically, socially and emotionally.
For months, parents in North Carolina and elsewhere have flooded school board meetings to protest mask mandates. Board meetings have often become rowdy affairs with parents hurling accusations and threats at school boards that they claim are usurping their parental rights by forcing students to wear masks.
Those in favor of mask mandates tend to be progressive, while those opposed to them are more conservative. Republicans have successfully tapped into what some describe as “parental exhaustion” to successfully fan the flames of opposition to mask mandates.
But this week in the Democratic stronghold of San Francisco, “parental exhaustion” was evident in a recall election that saw three progressive school board members tossed out of office over their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents claimed that the trio has spent the pandemic focused on renaming schools that honor historical figures linked to racism or oppression.
In North Carolina this week, parents demanded that the Wake County school board join the growing number of districts that have dropped mask mandates.
Moore said he and other lawmakers have heard from district leaders who want to do away with mask mandates but are reluctant to do so because it runs counter to guidance in the state’s Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit | NC COVID-19.
“Enough is enough,” Moore said.
Masking, he said, leads to disruptions in learning and socialization. “The learning loss is real,” Moore said, noting that lawmakers fully funded a summer learning program to help students catch up academically.
He said the passage of SB 173 would protect all students.
“[For example], Union County may lift the mask mandate, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg may not,” Moore said. “Those kids in Charlotte-Mecklenburg deserve to be protected just as much as every other child. This bill protects every child in this state, from the mountains to the coast, from the city to the country.”
Moore noted that many other states have ended such mandates. He said such decisions should be based on “science, but not political science.”
“I just find it hard to believe that with the data I’ve seen and the folks that I’ve talked to, that with all the other states getting rid of the mask mandates right now, why in North Carolina do we still have these mask mandates in place? Moore asked. “Does the coronavirus behave differently when it crosses the state line from South Carolina to North Carolina?”
At present, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still urges indoor masking, but according to news reports, it is expected to loosen its guidelines as early as next week.