Gov. Roy Cooper announced on July 21 that he’ll let local school districts decide whether students and staff must wear masks in the coming academic year, but recommended that they be mandatory indoors for all students and staff in elementary and middle schools.

Cooper said unvaccinated high school students and personnel should wear masks indoors as well since they’re eligible for vaccination.

This guidance is effective July 30 and local school leaders are responsible for requiring and implementing protocols in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit in consultation with their local health departments.

With the responsibility for requiring masks now up to local school districts, an increasing number of local school boards across the state are voting on this issue. Most are voting to make masks optional by leaving it up to parents to decide for their children.

Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd said Friday that no decision has been made for the Wilkes schools. The Wilkes Board of Education’s last meeting before students in the Wilkes schools return to classes on Aug. 23 is Monday night. The meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. in board room, which is accessed from the lobby of the school district administration building on Cherry Street, North Wilkesboro.

Dr. Westley Wood, assistant superintendent of the Wilkes County Schools, said 691 Wilkes school employees registered to be vaccinated for COVID-19 at Wilkes Health Department clinics early this year. Wood said that’s about 50.8% of staff.

“We don’t have access to data of employees who may have gone to other vaccination locations such as a health department site, out of county, private doctor, pharmacy, etc.,” he added.

As of Tuesday, 33% of Wilkes residents were fully vaccinated and 36% had received at least one shot.

According to the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit protocols referenced by Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services secretary:

• masks are recommended indoors for all children and staff in kindergarten through eighth grades because most students in those grades aren’t yet eligible for vaccination;

• students and staff should wear masks on buses, vans and other group school transportation;

• masks should be worn indoors by all individuals not fully vaccinated, including teachers, other school staff, high school students unless health or other exceptions apply;

• students should maintain physical distancing of at least three feet to the when actively eating at school mealtimes. It recommends having meals outside where risk of virus transmission is low.

Only the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for those ages 12 to 17.

Cooper said his current executive order requiring masks in certain settings expires at the end of this month. He lifted a statewide mask mandate, except for certain settings, in May after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance.

Cooper said the state of emergency North Carolina has been under since March 2020 will remain in place due to public health concerns.

“We’ve just had today our highest numbers of cases and hospitalizations in about two months,” Cooper told reporters at a news conference on July 21.

Cohen said she is disappointed with the low rate at which older youths are getting vaccinated.

Those ages 12 and up are eligible for the vaccine, but state data shows only a quarter of them statewide are fully vaccinated.

Cooper acknowledged that while the new protocol strongly encourages requiring masks for some in schools, there’s no way to enforce it and no repercussions for districts that decide to drop masks indoors completely.

Cohen said officials might have to “revisit” the school mask requirements if coronavirus trends continue in the wrong direction and “we see that our school districts aren’t keeping our kids safe.”

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