RALEIGH — Mask mandates are stripping away across the state as school districts vote to end nearly two-year requirements that students in grades K through 12 remain masked for up to eight hours a day. As of Monday Feb 21, 2022, fewer than 50 school systems in North Carolina currently have mask mandates standing and this week even more are eliminating the requirement them, according to the N.C. School Board’s Association.
Wake County Public School System, the school district surrounding North Carolina’s capital city of Raleigh, announced that its indoor mask mandate will end effective February 25, 2022. Meantime, Wayne County school boards voted to lift mask mandates effective Friday, February 18th, and Lee County’s mandate is lifted effective on as of Feb. 21.
School officials say their decisions were based on infection rates, which have been falling since mid-January, but also based the latest announcement from the state Department of Health and Human Services and Gov. Roy Cooper.
On Thursday, Feb. 17th, Cooper called for an end to local mask mandates for schools and local governments, though state lawmakers seemingly forced his hand.
Also on February 17th, the N.C. General Assembly passed the Free the Smiles Act that gives parents, not the state, the right to decide whether their child wears a mask to school. The House ultimately passed the measure, 76-42. The Senate passed it 29-17.
Cooper’s announcement calling for easing mask restrictions was made just hours before the measure was to face committee discussions and votes.
“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, 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 the news conference Thursday. If trends continue to improve, starting March 7th schools and other low-risk settings can consider moving to voluntary masking at the discretion of local authorities.
Children and staff in the Wake County School System have been wearing masks since March 2020.
Amy Marshall, who heads the Carolina Teachers Alliance, sent a letter Thursday on behalf of the alliance school staff and parent affiliate membership to Wake County schools Superintendent Cathy Moore and system board members, urging them to lift the mask mandate immediately.
“The legislature revealed the will of the people on the school mask mandate issue,” she said.
In the letter, Marshall urges the school board to meet before Tuesday, Feb. 22, so children and teachers return to class after the President’s Day weekend without masks.
“If you drag this out, you will cause further disruptions and more learning loss,” Marshall added. “Putting out a ‘teaser’ the way you did will place an undue burden on WCPSS staff members, as they try to enforce your continued mask mandate.”
A rally was held Feb. 16 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.
Chatham, Cumberland, Johnston, Moore, Henderson, Davidson, Union, Sampson counties are among those that have already moved to mask-optional policies, with Edgecombe, Northampton, and Franklin counties scheduled to consider mask optional policies in the coming weeks.
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.
Cooper has until Feb. 27 to sign or veto the bill but indicated that he will not support moving those decision rights to parents, calling it unwise and irresponsible.
“Are we going to let people pick and choose which public health rules they are going to follow?” Cooper asked members of the media in the Thursday press conference.