North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday that school districts should require masks indoors for all students and staff in elementary and middle schools, regardless of their vaccination status.
Any other unvaccinated students or personnel at all schools should wear masks as well, the governor announced.
That includes students, staff, guests and other guests in high schools.
Most school-age children in K-8 are not eligible for the vaccine. Only one vaccine, the Pfizer vaccine, has been approved for those ages 12 to 17. Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are for people 18 and older.
Cooper also announced that the current executive order, which has some pandemic restrictions still in place, will expire at the end of this month.
The mask mandate in schools and other settings like prisons, health care, public transit and childcare have been the last restrictions Cooper has lifted as part of his pandemic executive orders. The statewide mask mandate, except for certain settings, was lifted in May after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance.
The news comes as North Carolina has reported 7,298 new cases of COVID-19 in the last week, up from 4,571 from the week prior. That’s an increase of nearly 60%.
Cooper and DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen have cited the CDC to explain why they have maintained the mask mandate in schools. Vaccinations for COVID-19 are not yet available for children younger than age 12.
Cohen noted in early June that the CDC recommends unvaccinated people wear masks indoors, and “that includes the vast majority of our children who are in K-12 schools.”
That CDC guidance changed in early July. The new recommendation is that vaccinated teachers and students do not need to wear masks in schools, and allows some flexibility at the local level, the Associated Press reported.
Among children age 12 to 17 in North Carolina, just 28% have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, and 24% are fully vaccinated, as of Wednesday.
The 2021-22 school year already has begun for year-round schools in the largest school district in the state, Wake County. The traditional calendar school year starts in late August.
To add to the CDC’s guidance, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that everyone in schools still wear masks, whether or not they are vaccinated.
In North Carolina, there will still be a requirement for passengers and staff on buses and school transportation to wear masks, to comply with the CDC.
The North Carolina House passed a bill in June that would allow decisions on mask policies be left to local school districts, but it has not passed the Senate.
NC COVID-19 metrics
State health officials say the increase in COVID-19 cases is due to the delta variant, a more transmissible and possibly more deadly form of the coronavirus.
Among tests statewide that are sequenced for the delta variant and reported to the state, around 10%, over 75% are the delta variant, as of the week ending July 10, according to DHHS.
Officials say that the vaccine still provides protection against the variant, especially severe cases of the disease.
In recent weeks, 99% of cases and 98% of hospitalizations are among those unvaccinated, according to DHHS.
As of Wednesday, 60% of adults in North Carolina have received at least one dose, and 56% are fully vaccinated.
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