The state’s Department of Health and Human Services says its newly revised K-12 Toolkit is a guideline for school districts, but it won’t hold up to state laws.

The clarification came in a January letter to Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga.

“The toolkit itself is not a legally enforceable document but rather a strong recommendation for schools on how to stop the spread of COVID 19,” DHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley wrote in the letter.

The letter also shifts focus from DHHS to individual school boards as some parents step up the pressure to lift mask mandates and keep students in class. In response, Wake County parents have planned a protest, scheduled for Tuesday during a meeting of the Wake County school board.

The parents are upset with the continued mandatory masking for children in grades K-12 throughout the school day. Wake is North Carolina’s largest school system, surrounding the state capital. Earlier this year, neighboring Johnston and Cumberland counties moved to mask optional policies.

The “teeth” in the toolkit have been vague throughout the pandemic, as school boards and administrators wrestle with setting policy for masks, vaccines, and distancing for students and teachers. Most districts have treated the toolkit as a legal directive from the state, particularly after DHHS threatened to sue Union County in September for making masks optional and scaling back contact tracing. 

“The law is very far from clear and given the ambiguity of the statutory and regulatory authority cited by DHHS, I don’t think it would win a lawsuit against a school board that failed to comply with the Toolkit,” said Jon Guze, senior fellow for Legal Studies at the John Locke Foundation.  

Demonstrations can carry risks, however.

Speaking out against school mask mandates across the country has caused school authorities to be put on leave and lose their jobs. It has also forced some high-profile people to resign from their jobs due to pressure from the woke cancel culture. This comes as COVID rates continue to fall across the country. States, including New Jersey and Nevada, are ending school mask mandates statewide.

In Chicago, the principal for Queen of Martyrs Catholic School, Doc Mathius, who has more than 45 years in education, notified parents Feb. 8 that masks would become optional, telling local news that he thought the time had come for somebody to do something. His decision was in conflict with the Archdiocese of Chicago’s school mask requirement. Four hours after the change was made public, Mathius was put on paid leave. He told a local TV station he expects to be fired.  

Jennifer Sey, former brand president for Levi’s, resigned from her job after what she says was bullying for her speech in opposition to COVID-driven school shutdowns early in the pandemic, and continued mask mandates. The parent of two black sons, Sev was called a racist for asking for schools to remain open. She says her bosses at the Levi corporation requested that she keep quiet on the issue, but she refused, eventually moving her family from California to Colorado for children to experience school with fewer restrictions.  

In North Carolina’s Johnston County, the school board voted 6-1 last week to make face masks optional for students and school employees, starting Feb. 21 on a school-by-basis, if less than 4% of the school’s staff and students test positive for COVID-19 and/or are quarantined due to exposure to the virus. The Cumberland County school board voted 5-4 on the same day to make face masks optional starting Feb. 16.  

N.C. Speaker of the House, Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said Friday, Feb. 11, the House will advance legislation after redistricting to give parents statewide the ability to opt-out of the mask requirement. The bill would create a statewide standard, stem reach of the state health agency, but could also limit the liability of leaders who want to lift mask mandates by offering families a personal choice.  

Guze said while any lawsuits from parents who say their child has suffered harm due to mask mandates would probably fail, they would cause an expensive ordeal for school boards and officials, which is all the more reason for the General Assembly to take action. 

“We’ve been dealing with COVID for more than two years,” said Guze. “It’s not an emergency anymore; it’s an ongoing public health problem. It isn’t lawful or appropriate for administrative officers to impose legally binding rules under those circumstances. Only our elected representatives in the General Assembly should take it upon themselves to do that.” 

Parents and children held a peaceful protest outside the Chicago school last week, urging for the reinstatement of Mathius, who said he did what he thought was in the best interest of his students. 

A similar protest is being held by the Carolina Teachers Alliance, in cooperation with Open NC, American Teachers Alliance, and Mom’s for Liberty, Wake County, Tuesday, Feb. 15 at 5 p.m., outside the Wake County Public School Headquarters in Cary.