RALEIGH — On Feb. 10, North Carolina’s K-12 COVID-19 guidance was changed to drop contact tracing and altered some quarantine policies but kept indoor mask usage in place for all children 5 and up.
In a press release, interim N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kody Kinsley said the updates are “the right approach for this point in the pandemic” and said it “includes flexibility for local schools and health departments to use data to make informed decisions and respond to local conditions.”
The main update to the StrongSchools NC Toolkit says, “Individual contact tracing and exclusion from school of asymptomatic people after an identified exposure is no longer recommended statewide in K-12 schools.”
Additionally, students and staff are no longer required to stay home from school following a COVID-19 exposure, unless they test positive or have symptoms. All of the toolkit’s updates are effective Feb. 21.
The masking requirements still apply to all students ages 5 and up. The NCDHHS toolkit is still tying mask wearing to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) definitions of “substantial” or “high” community transmission rates.
The toolkit update comes as states such as Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Nevada, Oregon, and Virginia have all moved to make masks in schools optional. In Virginia, bipartisan legislation was passed this week that would prohibit schools from implementing a mask mandate.
Some districts in the state are not waiting for the toolkit to catch up. More than 40 of the state’s 115 districts have some type of mask-optional policy in place as of the week ending Feb. 11.
NCDHHS rolled out the update a few hours after House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) made public a letter sent to Gov. Roy Cooper calling for an end to forced masking in K-12 schools, which said in part that young children “continue to pay the heaviest price” of pandemic policies.
Following NCDHHS’ release of the updates, Moore called the updates “simply not strong enough,” and said that the General Assembly would take action.
“As soon as redistricting is completed, we will be advancing legislation in the House to give parents the ability to opt-out of mask requirement,” Moore said. “Virginia is already advancing a bipartisan bill just like this. It is parents, not politicians, who should decide whether or not to mask their children.”
In a statement, Moore also called out “the Governor’s endless state of emergency and ongoing mandates and restrictions.” Cooper’s pandemic statewide state of emergency order is over 700 days old and will turn two years old next month on March 10.
Prior to the toolkit updates being released, Cooper was asked about K-12 mask mandates while touring a daycare facility in Goldsboro.
“I’m pleased and hopeful we can get back to our normal lives with the understanding that we’re all going to need to do things to make sure we protect ourselves dependent on the risk,” said Cooper. “They’re reviewing that policy right now, but what I think is more important is that we continue to watch the trends and make sure we’re coming down significantly.”
Cooper cited the number of hospitalizations and said he was going to “rely on our health officials and their recommendations before making any announcements” about K-12 masking.
Union County Public Schools has already dropped contact tracing and quarantine policies. That district has maintained mask-optional policies throughout in-person instruction and had previously been threatened by former NCDDHS Secretary Mandy Cohen for attempting to do so.
Cohen had dodged answering questions by lawmakers on the legality of the toolkit at a hearing late last year, but Kinsley has recently stated it is not a “legally enforceable document.”
“The Toolkit itself is not a legally enforceable document, but rather strong recommendations for schools on how to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” wrote Kinsley in response to a letter from state Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga) about Test to Stay protocols.
As for the CDC, Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is sticking to required masking of K-12 students amid half a dozen states dropping the requirement. At a Feb. 8 press update, Walensky said, “Right now our CDC guidance has not changed,” and “We continue to endorse universal masking in schools.”
The CDC and Walensky drew criticism after emails obtained by a watchdog group called Americans for Public Trust showed the agency’s K-12 mask guidance had been influenced by teacher unions.
Earlier last year, teacher unions were also found to have collaborated with the White House and CDC on reopening schools to in-person instruction, with some suggestions from the teacher union being adopted almost verbatim.