A third of North Carolina school districts will not require face masks when students return to class from the Thanksgiving holiday break.
At least 39 of North Carolina’s 115 school districts have voted to make face coverings optional, according to a database maintained by the N.C. School Boards Association. Most of the state’s public school students are in districts that still mandate masks, but the number making face coverings optional is steadily increasing.
School districts are caught in the middle between parents who say masks should stay until more children get the COVID vaccine and other parents who say the mandate should have ended long ago.
“We’re just in a really bad time until we can move forward and move out of all of the different things that are keeping us — I don’t even know what word to say for what we’re still dealing with — when it comes to COVID,” Transylvania County school board chairwoman Tawny McCoy said before the vote to make face masks optional starting Nov. 29.
Transylvania County is more than 270 miles west of Raleigh. The small Western North Carolina school district is like dozens of districts that have reversed course multiple times since the summer over whether to require face masks.
Individual school boards and charter schools are making face mask decisions because the state doesn’t have the final say like it did last school year. State lawmakers are also requiring monthly votes on masking policies.
Masks dropped despite NC advice
The state Department of Health and Human Services recommends that schools require face masks be worn indoors. But in October, DHHS revised its recommendations to say that schools can consider not requiring masks if the COVID transmission rate in their county drops to moderate or low levels.
As of Tuesday, only six of North Carolina’s 100 counties: Halifax, Hertford, Lee, Northampton, Scotland and Tyrrell have low to moderate COVID transmission rates. All the school districts in those counties still require masks.
All 39 mask-optional districts are in counties with high or severe COVID community transmission rates. They’re also all in counties that Republican Donald Trump won in the 2020 presidential election.
The Gaston County school board voted this month to end the mask requirement against the recommendations of the county health director. Gaston County is located 180 miles west of Raleigh.
“In life there are risks and rewards for every action we undertake,” Jamin Jenkins, a middle school parent, told the Gaston County school board before its vote. “I know there are risks of rolling back mask mandates. But I believe the rewards outweigh the risks.”
All school districts in the counties that Democrat Joe Biden won in the 2020 presidential election are still mandating face masks. This includes the state’s five largest school systems: Wake, Mecklenburg, Guilford, Forsyth and Cumberland counties.
The 76 total school districts still requiring masks represent 64% of the state’s K-12 public school enrollment. The 39 mask-optional districts represent 27% of the enrollment.
The remaining 9% of public school students are in charter schools, laboratory schools and the single-school Innovative School District. It’s uncertain how many of those schools require masks.
Should schools wait for vaccination rates to rise?
The number of school districts voting not to require masks has doubled in the past month. School leaders in those districts have cited how the number of new COVID cases has been dropping statewide and how access to the COVID vaccine has expanded.
In late October, Pfizer won federal approval to administer the COVID vaccine to children ages 5 to 11. Previously, only children as young as age 12 could get the shot.
COVID vaccination rates among students are one of the factors being used by school districts, such as Wake County, to decide when to end the mask mandate. According to DHHS, only 12% of children ages 5 to 11 and 45% of children ages 12 to 17 have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine.
In Henderson County, the school board voted at an emergency meeting this month to temporarily restore the mask mandate for students in pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade. The vote came after the district, located 260 miles west of Raleigh, saw a spike in the number of elementary students testing positive for COVID and being quarantined since masks were made optional.
The reason given for the change was to provide more time for these younger students to become fully vaccinated for COVID. State health quarantine requirements for COVID are stricter when it comes to unvaccinated students, especially when they are unmasked.
“Parents and families have the opportunity, to choose a vaccine — if they believe it to be best or not.— and if they choose to do so, they have the opportunity to ensure that their child is not quarantined from school,” Henderson County Superintendent John Bryant told the school board.
News researchers Gavin Off and David Raynor contributed to this report.