RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday, Feb.17, called for an end to local mask mandates for schools and local governments, though state lawmakers are seemingly forcing his hand.
Cooper, a Democrat, cited declining COVID-19 cases, vaccines and boosters, expanded testing, available PPE, and treatments. Kody Kinsley, state health secretary, echoed Cooper’s comments in a news conference Thursday. If trends continue to improve, starting March 7 schools and other low-risks settings can consider moving to voluntary masking at the discretion of local authorities.
“We have learned how to protect ourselves and each other from serious illness due to COVID,” Cooper said. “Now we take a positive step on mask requirements to help us move safely toward a more normal day-to-day life. I know we all want that.”
Cooper’s and Kinsley’s actions came after the House Committee on Education announced a hearing on Senate Bill 173, Free the Smiles Act. The House ultimately passed the measure, 76-42. The Senate passed it, 28-17, on Thursday afternoon.
The act gives parents the right to have their children opt out of wearing masks in school.
“I am glad the governor is coming to our position on this,” House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, told lawmakers, referencing letters sent to Cooper. “These decisions should be based on science, but not political science.”
Cooper said he had concerns about the legislation, and that it was unwise and irresponsible to give North Carolinians the right to decide.
“Are we going to let people pick and choose which public health rules they are going to follow? Cooper asked.
He said the never-ending state emergency will, however, stay in place. He said it provides flexibility to medical facilities and health providers. Cooper enacted the ongoing emergency almost two years ago.
“We may talk with the legislature about putting some things into law permanently, so we can consider ending that, but that is where we are,” he said.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services updated its COVID management guidelines for schools, called a toolkit, last week, to rein in contract tracing, but was criticized by Republican leadership for failing to include mask-optional policies in the guidance.
DHHS sent a letter to Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga in January, saying the toolkit was not legally enforceable but rather a strong recommendation for schools on how to stop the spread of COVID-19. Pushback from parents, teachers, and other community members has caused legislators and governors to take a step back and revisit the guidance on mask mandates for children. Critics say wearing masks not only hurts children’s learning abilities but also affects them socially and mentally.
“Our youngest students are suffering under these mask mandates,” Ballard said in a statement. “Put yourself in their shoes and imagine how difficult your first few years of school would be if you had to wear a mask.”
Ballard serves as the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.
“Giving parents the ability to choose whether their child wears a mask balances the specific needs of a family,” she said. “It’s past time to give our students a lifeline and let them get back to learning freely.”
“The social and emotional damage of this will not be understood for years. Some of these children could be impacted for decades,” said Rep. David Willis, R-Union.
Rep. Kristin Baker, R-Cabarrus, is a medical doctor specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry. She said she is disturbed by the effects she sees in children due to the long-term wearing of masks. “What we do have data on is child and adolescent suicide, homicide, ER visits, substance use. That is what we have actual hard, peer-reviewed data on.”
Speech therapists, too, have also seen an increase in children’s speech delays. Teachers have also been affected. Amy Marshall heads the Carolina Teachers Alliance and is a college adjunct professor with 13 years of experience as a classroom teacher, including in Wake County schools. She said they have told CTA they were planning to leave the profession if mandates continued.
“To promote an ideology that makes teachers afraid of kids and make kids feel that they are something to be avoided and carrying sickness is terrible,” added Marshall.
A rally was held earlier this week by CTA, the American Teachers Alliance, Open-NC.US, and Wake County’s Moms for Liberty to end the mask mandate in Wake County Schools. Momentum to end masking mandates has picked up speed in recent weeks.
Chatham, Cumberland, Johnston, Moore, Henderson, Davidson, Union, Sampson, and Harnett counties already moved to masks-optional policies, with Edgecombe, Northampton, and Franklin counties scheduled to consider mask optional policies later this month.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, signed a bill Wednesday ending school mask mandates after it cleared the state legislature earlier this week. Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon, New Jersey, Nevada, and Massachusetts are all ending mask mandates for schools. with California and New York revisiting the issue by the beginning of March.