RALEIGH — A frequently-asked-questions document related to K-12 school masking requirements was edited by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) according to an Oct. 25 update.
New language was added under the “Cloth Face Coverings and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)” section, tying community transmission and vaccinations to when schools should consider lifting masking requirements.
“Given that our student population is largely not yet vaccinated, face covering remain a critical tool for protecting children and keeping them safely in the classroom,” the section reads. “NCDHHS recommends that schools base their mask requirements on levels of community transmission, as defined by the CDC. Community Transmission Levels are determined by two indicators- case rates and test percent positivity. If the two indicators are categorized in different transmission levels, the higher level is selected.”
The new FAQ language goes on to say that depending on community-transmission levels, school officials can decide to make masks optional but only for vaccinated persons.
“NCDHHS recommends schools continue to implement a universal face covering requirement if they are located in a county with high or substantial levels as defined by the CDC,” the FAQ update reads. “When community transmission levels decline in your county to moderate or low levels for at least 7 consecutive days, school leaders can consider making face coverings optional for vaccinated individuals.”
“Face coverings in school continue to be required for all unvaccinated individuals until community transmission is at low levels, when mask could be optional for everyone,” reads the FAQ update.
The update also says that “NCDHHS will continue to re-evaluate this guidance as all school-aged children become eligible for and get vaccinated.”
The September version of the frequently asked questions document (FAQ) did not have this language.
Gov. Roy Cooper and NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen held a COVID-19 briefing just two days after the edit to the FAQ document. At that briefing, Cohen was asked by a reporter about the language change, and she said there had been no change to mask guidance.
“There has been no change to mask guidance,” said Cohen. “Where we are right now for our schools, you know, the vast majority of our students are unvaccinated.”
She also added that “when the vast majority of folks are unvaccinated, you gotta do other things to protect each other, and top of the list there is wearing a mask. So right now, there is no change to our recommendation that all schools should require masks in K through 12. And that has not changed.”
“We are going to be looking at the CDC guidance that says as you improve out on the horizon there are opportunities for us to think about stepping that back,” Cohen said. “But we are not close to that yet.”
Cohen went on to say that “we are reiterating that today in our guidance to say [that] as school boards are reevaluating things, they should keep mask mandates — the answer is yes, they should because nearly all of our counties are either red or orange. And while you are still in that place, you really shouldn’t be considering taking away mask mandates.”
Later in her response, Cohen said “for anyone who is unvaccinated, they need to continue wearing masks.”
The FAQ update and Cohen’s recent remarks likely will add to continued parent anger and protests over masking in the state’s K-12 schools.
During the Sept. 21 COVID-19 briefing, Cohen said there are “no plans at this time” to ask the N.C. Commission on Public Health (NCCPH) to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of requirements for K-12 students but that “we’ll step through that [process] as we go forward.”
Cooper said he was “excited” that children ages 5 to 11 might be able to get the vaccine soon but did not answer whether or not his office would push for a K-12 immunization requirement.
During the NCCPH meeting in August, a few members expressed a desire to add the vaccine to the K-12 immunization requirements but tabled further discussion to a later date.
The commission met again virtually on Oct. 15, and audio obtained exclusively by North State Journal showed members of the body joking about public interest in child vaccination requirements and what some members referred to as anti-vax and mask “rhetoric.”
The next NCCPH meeting is scheduled for Nov. 3 but a time has not yet been announced on the commission’s website.