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New NC guidance on masks in schools says mandates can be dropped with lower COVID numbers

Line first day CMS.jpeg
Nancy Pierce
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
CMS students wear masks as they report for their first day of school in August.

Updated 6:18 p.m.

North Carolina health officials said Wednesday that school districts in the so-called “yellow zone” of community spread of the coronavirus for seven consecutive days can consider dropping school mask mandates.

“Yellow” means a county has low or moderate COVID-19 spread, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But right now, only two of North Carolina’s 100 counties fall into that category — Hyde and Cherokee counties.

State Health Secretary Mandy Cohen said that means all other school districts should keep requiring masks — even though there’s no statewide mandate to do so.

"We want to make sure that they know that they really need to be keeping that mask mandate," Cohen said in a news conference Wednesday. "Now, I’m excited for vaccines (for children ages 5-11) on the horizon, I’m excited that trends are moving in the right direction. But we don’t want them to make any new decisions yet. We want to make sure they're protecting each other and making sure to keep kids in the classroom.”

School districts in Union, Lincoln and Cabarrus counties have already dropped school mask requirements.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools can’t even consider getting rid of its mandate until Mecklenburg’s county-wide mask mandate is lifted.

CMS already had received the new guidance Tuesday. CMS human resources chief Christine Pejot told the school board Tuesday that "hot off the press" around 3 p.m., the Department of Health and Human Services sent word about changes.

"The guidance that we just received indicates that if counties are experiencing high or substantial spread, then universal masking should be applied by school districts," she said. "However, if counties are experiencing low to moderate spread, then districts can consider making masks optional."

State rules aren't a mandate

The state's mask rules for schools are not mandatory and a handful of North Carolina districts have already made masks optional.

After that, Pejot says CMS will look at other measures, such as school clusters and vaccination rates for school-age kids, before making a change. She said a decision won't be based on any one number, but on the overall situation.

North Carolina requires monthly votes on school mask policies. CMS will take its next vote Nov. 9.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.
Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.