NC health officials back off from saying face masks should be worn in all schools

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State health officials are no longer recommending that all North Carolina school districts require students and employees to wear face masks in schools.

Updated guidance released this week from the state Department of Health and Human Services now recommends that schools only require face masks in counties with high or substantial COVID-19 transmission rates. In communities with low or moderate transmission rates, DHHS says schools can consider making masks optional for certain groups.

“Given that our student population is largely not yet vaccinated, face (coverings) remain a critical tool for protecting children and keeping them safely in the classroom,” DHHS says in its update. “NCDHHS recommends that schools base their mask requirements on levels of community transmission, as defined by the CDC.”

Until now, DHHS has recommended in its Strong Schools Toolkit that schools use universal masking.

Unlike last school year, the state is no longer requiring schools to mandate masks. Instead, the decision was left up to individual school districts, charter schools and private schools with DHHS recommending that they continue to require masks.

Under state law, school boards must vote at least monthly on their masking policies. The debate over masking and what critics say is Critical Race Theory have contributed to large crowds at school board meetings in North Carolina and nationally.

Masks optional when COVID rates are down

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention bases community transmission rates on COVID-19 case rates and test percent positivity,

Under the new guidance, DHHS says school leaders can consider making face masks optional for vaccinated individuals when the transmission rate in their county drops to moderate or low levels for at least seven consecutive days.

When the transmission rate drops to low levels, DHHS says school leaders can consider making face masks optional for everyone.

The new guidance comes as the number of new COVID-19 cases are dropping and federal approval could be given soon for the COVID vaccine to be given to children ages 5 to 11. Gov. Roy Cooper could discuss the vaccination issue at a coronavirus briefing at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

“NCDHHS will continue to re-evaluate this guidance as all school-aged children become eligible for and get vaccinated,” according to the guidance.

Most counties still have high transmission rates

As of Tuesday, 98 of North Carolina’s 100 counties have high or substantial COVID-19 transmission rates.

Only Cherokee and Hyde counties are in the moderate transmission category. No county has a low transmission rate.

Cherokee County is among 12 North Carolina school districts that have made face masks optional. These districts represents 9% of the state’s K-12 public school enrollment.

Hyde County is among 103 school districts that require face coverings to be worn. These districts account for 82% of the state’s school enrollment.

Another 9% of students are in charter schools, lab schools and the single-school Innovative School District. It’s unclear how many of those schools require masks.

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