Following the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services announcement that North Carolina won’t be ending the mask mandate for public school children, N.C. Speaker of the House, Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, stated that the House would be advancing legislation to give parents the ability to opt-out of the mask requirement. Legislation is expected after redistricting.

 Virginia is already advancing a bipartisan bill just like this,” wrote Moore. “It is parents, not politicians, who should decide whether or not to mask their children.” 

 In a Feb. 10 meeting with county health officials from across the state, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services said the agency is updating the DHHS Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit K-12 to recommend “students and staff no longer be required to stay home from school following a COVID-19 exposure unless they have symptoms or test positive.” Before this change, teachers and students were instructed to stay home from school for possible COVID exposure, even if they had no signs of infection.   

 The update takes effect on Feb. 21. It fails to address rising public concern over the continued mandatory masking of children in kindergarten through grade 12. Guidelines in the DHHS toolkit advise that students in North Carolina public schools be required to wear masks up to 10 or 12 hours a day, every day if they also have after-school activities. At a minimum, the guidelines mean children as young as 5 are in masks for six or seven hours each day. 

 “Keeping kids in the classroom remains a top priority,” DHHS Secretary Kody H. Kinsley said in a press release announcing the update. “As we have done throughout the pandemic, we evaluate which tools are most effective to protect students and staff. This is the right approach for this point in the pandemic and includes flexibility for local schools and health departments to use data to make informed decisions and respond to local conditions.” 

However, counties have argued the state health agency is too vague about whether the state toolkit rules are enforceable, and just how much real flexibility schools have. Earlier this school year, DHHS threatened to sue Union County for making masks optional and scaling back contact tracing. 

Moore sent a letter Thursday to Gov. Roy Cooper urging the governor to join the list of states which have eased mask mandates on school children.  

His latest statement notes the inaction of the removal of the mandate will continue to negatively impact children. This failure by Governor Cooper and DHHS to roll back obsolete mask mandates will mean that many schools will leave those mandates in place,” Moore said. “Yesterday’s updates were simply not strong enough. We must do more to protect our children from further learning setbacks and the other consequences of keeping these mandates in place.” 

Other state leaders have cited declining infection and hospitalization rates, along with growing vaccination rates, as the reason they’re easing restrictions. North Carolina is experiencing the same drops. Last week, daily reported cases fell by 43%, and COVID-related hospitalizations dropped by 18%. That follows the national rates of 44% and 18%, respectively. 

Most recently, New York and Massachusetts announced Wednesday they would ease school mask requirements. Effective Feb. 28 in Massachusetts, masks become optional unless a local district decides otherwise. Starting in March, New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut, masks become optional for all students and teachers.  New York said they will revisit their mask mandate for schools, which was to end Feb. 21, at the beginning of March.