Governor Cooper, state health officials plead for school boards that didn’t mandate masks to reconsider

Published: Aug. 13, 2021 at 6:55 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Governor Roy Cooper, along with NC DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen and State Health Director Dr. Betsey Tilson, sent a letter to all school boards that failed to adopt the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit pleading that they reconsider their decision.

The guidance outlined in the toolkit states that all all schools should “require all children and staff in schools K-12th grade to wear face coverings consistently when indoors. Schools K-12th grade should make mask use universally required.”

According to a running list compiled by the NC School Boards Association, 59 of the 115 school boards in the state have made masks mandatory for K-12th grade. One school board, Craven County Schools, has required masks for K-8th grade but made it optional for 9th-12th grade. Out of the 115 school boards, 52 have made masks optional for K-12th grade and two systems, Pitt County and Asheboro City Schools, have not decided.

In WECT’s five-county viewing area, masks will be required for K-12th grade to start the school year in New Hanover County and Brunswick County. Columbus County, Pender County and Bladen County school boards have made masks optional, which means they all received the letter sent by Governor Cooper and state health officials.

In the letter, state leaders said they “are writing with an urgent request” that school boards that have voted to make masks optional reconsider “to protect students and staff in this new school year.”

The letter continues on to say that “keeping children and staff in the classroom full-time for in-person learning is essential and following these health guidelines is the best way to ensure it.”

Cooper, Cohen and Tilson cite several reasons for their urgent plea, including the fact that children under 12 cannot yet get a vaccine and the percent of children 12-18 years old who are vaccinated is low.

The rapid spread of the Delta variant is also cause for concern. Hospitalizations have more than doubled over the past two weeks, according to the letter, and cases have increased by more than 50% in seven days as the number of people going to the emergency room with COVID-like symptoms is on the rise.

The new variant is also affecting children more than past variants. State officials said in the letter that it’s still unclear if the Delta variant causes more severe illness in children, but that they are currently seeing an increase of pediatric patients in the hospital. Health officials are also still learning about the risk of long-term complications in children as well.

WECT reached out to the school boards of Bladen, Columbus, and Pender Counties. As of 6 p.m. on Friday, the Bladen County Chair and Vice-Chair had not responded to WECT’s request for comment.

Columbus County Vice Chairman Ronnie Strickland said that he has yet to read the letter in its entirety. He said that the board continues to evaluate the situation and that the letter will be taken under advisement.

The Pender County Board of Education issued a statement: “The Pender County Board of Education acknowledges receipt of Governor Cooper’s emailed letter earlier today. At this time, the Board has no further comment on the issue.’”

State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who is on the State Board of Education, voted in favor of the toolkit, but he struck a different tone from the governor on Friday. While Governor Cooper is urgently requesting that school boards fully implement the health protections in the toolkit, which clearly states that schools should require masks, Treasurer Folwell said that the toolkit trusts the commonsense and courtesy of each individual school board.

“I think what happened with the toolkit, that was voted on by the North Carolina State Board of Education, does a very similar thing. It encourages the use of masks, it encourages vaccinations, it pushes the power down to the common sense and courtesy of these local governing bodies,” Folwell said.

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