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New NC COVID-19 Guidelines Leave Wiggle Room On Who Must Wear Masks At School

Carmel Middle masks CMS.jpg
Nancy Pierce
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Students at Carmel Middle School wear masks in class last school year.

Rules for face coverings in schools may vary from county to county when the new school year begins in August.

North Carolina's COVID-19 safety guidelines for schools were updated Wednesday to say K-8 schools should continue to require masks indoors to protect children who are too young to be vaccinated. That's described as a strategy that "SHOULD be implemented by all schools" and "strongly advised" by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

But the new guidance, which takes effect July 30, spells out no penalties for taking a different path.

Union County Public Schools plan to stick with the school board's recent decision to make masks optional at all levels beginning Aug. 1, spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte said Thursday.

Officials in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Iredell-Statesville schools say they’re reviewing the latest updates before announcing COVID-19 safety plans for August.

Pediatricians Have Different View

The state guidelines say in grades 9 to 12, face coverings should be required for anyone who isn’t fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But on Monday the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that schools continue requiring masks at all grade levels, because it's tough to distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

"In the absence of schools being able to conduct this monitoring, universal masking is the best and most effective strategy to create consistent messages, expectations, enforcement, and compliance without the added burden of needing to monitor vaccination status," the AAP update says.

In June, Iredell-Statesville Schools sent a news release saying the district expected face coverings to be optional. On Thursday, Public Information Officer Jada Jones said the district's legal staff is reviewing the new state guidance, with an update from ISS expected next week.

CMS gave no timetable for releasing mask rules for 2021-22, but noted that until further notice the rule is masks inside for all schools.

Other State Changes

North Carolina's new guidelines removed several restrictions that are described as no longer necessary or not supported by the latest evidence. Field trips and outside visitors to schools will no longer be restricted. Schools will no longer be expected to do daily symptom screenings, mark halls to keep students distanced, enforce social distancing on buses or require masks outside.

References to Plans A, B and C, with various levels of safety measures and remote learning, have been eliminated. Districts are no longer required to provide remove learning options for students, though many are doing so voluntarily.

Quarantine is no longer required after close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 if the person exposed is fully vaccinated or if everyone involved has been consistently and appropriately wearing masks.

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