RALEIGH — Schools are strongly encouraged to require masks for students and staff while indoors, Gov. Roy Cooper announced at a July 21 press conference.
The announcement comes as the state updated the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit. The updated StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit is aligned with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics guidance, which urges that everything possible be done to keep students in schools and emphasizes continued masking.
The guidance is effective July 30 and local school leaders are responsible for requiring and implementing the protocols.
"As we enter the new school year, as the governor said the toolkit says, all schools kindergarten through eighth grade should require all children and staff to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status," North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen. "Schools should ensure that anyone who isn't fully vaccinated, including students, wear a mask indoors."
The statewide mandate requiring masks in North Carolina schools will also end at the end of the month.
Cooper said there is going to be a big push for school districts to schools to follow the toolkit, which includes requiring masks for those in K-8. According to Cohen, only about one in four children between 12 to 17 are vaccinated.
"It's pretty obvious from this toolkit that we're rolling out today that we want local school districts to require masks," Cooper said.
The toolkit states passengers and staff are required to wear a face covering on buses, vans, and other group school transportation, and that face coverings are worn indoors by all individuals who are not fully vaccinated, including students grades 9th-12th, workers, teachers, guests, other adults and children age two or older.
"The updated toolkit reflects the expertise of the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics and our public health experts on how to keep our kids in person and safe in schools with layered prevention strategies," Cohen said. "It's important to note that the need for additional statewide action and changes to the toolkit may be needed over time as we receive new data."
The toolkit also provides new guidance for quarantining a student after exposure. For example, if K-12 student who is not fully vaccinated but has been in close contact, within 3 to 6 feet, with someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19, in which both individuals were wearing a mask the entire time, NCDHHS does not recommend quarantine of students.
But if a person who is not fully vaccinated and has been in close contact with someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19, NCDHHS recommends that person can return to school after completing up to 14 days of quarantine.
The full toolkit can be found at covid19.ncdhhs.gov/media/164/open.
Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott said he is looking forward to having school on a full five day a week schedule this coming year while getting back to as many normal activities as possible for students.
"Over the next few days, we will review the updated guidance from NCDHHS and make a determination about the health and safety procedures we will have in place for the coming school year," Elliott said. "We will seek the advice of local public health and medical professionals in order to make the best decisions possible."
Elliott said he wants to thank everyone in the community who has worked so hard to do what it takes to fight this virus and to keep our schools healthy. He said the district would continue to work hard to protect students from the virus and to keep schools open as they have worked hard to follow the rules given to them by the state.
"For now, we continue to encourage everyone to get vaccinated," Elliott said. "Last school year the leading cause of transmission among school age children in our schools was from an adult in their family. Right now, the vaccine is our greatest hope for protecting our children and getting all of this behind us."
According to Elliott, 85 percent of Watauga County Schools staff have received the vaccine.
Cohen said the state would work with individual school districts to implement protocols, as the state is being really clear that schools should implement this guidance.
"If we see that our trends are going in the wrong direction, if we see that school districts aren't keeping our kids safe and they can't be in person learning, then we might have to revisit," Cohen said. "But I think where we are in this pandemic is different than when we entered school a year ago."
Cohen said that compared to last school year, there are now vaccines that protect teachers and those 12 and older.
But the Delta variant is a cause for concern as cases rise.
"Fueled by the Delta variant, we’ve seen a recent increase in cases, percent positive and hospitalizations," Cooper said. "We pray for those who are sick, the people we have lost and the ones they’ve left behind."
Cooper said that July 21 had the highest number of cases and hospitalizations in two months. Currently 694 people are hospitalized across the state, according to NCDHHS. Cooper also announced that 60 percent of North Carolina adults 18 years old and older have been vaccinated.
In regards to restrictions, Cooper said that his office would do "whatever is necessary" to protect the health and safety of people.
"We are concerned with the increase that we have seen in our numbers, our hospitalizations," Cooper said. "People just need to know that all the options continue to be on the table. Today, however, we are very focused on trying to make sure we get our children back in school, in person, as normal as possible."