Cooper encourages ending school mask mandates days after CCS move to optional policy

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Less than three days after the Chatham County Schools Board of Education voted 3-2 to gradually transition to optional masking “on or about March 7,” dependent on advice from state and local health departments, Gov. Roy Cooper encouraged North Carolina municipalities and school boards last Thursday “to end their mask mandates.”

Kody Kinsley, Secretary of the N.C. Dept of Health and Human Services, said the move to voluntary masking could start March 7, “at the discretion of local authorities.”

“This variant is clearly more contagious, yet generally causes less severe illness, particularly to people who are vaccinated and boosted, and now people know how to gauge their level of risk and decide how to best protect themselves,” Cooper said on Thursday. “As a result of all these factors, I encourage schools and local governments to end their mask mandates.”

Under CCS’s roadmap approved last Monday, Feb. 14, masks became optional for athletes and spectators beginning Feb. 15. On Feb. 21, changes made to the K-12 StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit went into effect — ending individual contact tracing in schools and not requiring asymptomatic people with COVID exposures to stay home from school. And “on or about” March 7, the first Monday of the month, the district will move to a mask-optional policy — encouraging and providing vaccination opportunities before then.

The district said it would make the final decision “depending on data and advice from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, the Chatham County Health Department and the ABC Science Collaborative,” and according to community transmission metrics set by the state health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Under that guidance, a school district can move to optional masking when community transmission levels decline to moderate or low levels of community transmission and remain there for seven consecutive days — something Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson anticipates occurring by the proposed March timeframe.

The board was originally scheduled to meet next March 14, at which time the roadmap plan says members can “make adjustments as necessary” regarding COVID data.

Now, they will hold a special meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday to vote on a recommendation to remove the existing face covering mandate, effective March 7. If the board approves the recommendation, all of CCS will shift to a mask-optional policy as of March 7 — for the first time since the pandemic began in March of 2020.

“Chatham County Schools’ proposal to move to optional masking on or around March 7 aligns with Gov. Roy Cooper’s call last week for school districts to eliminate mask mandates,” Jackson told the News + Record this week, ahead of the district's announcment of the special meeting. “People have the opportunity between now and March 7 to get a vaccination if they so choose, or to get a booster shot if they need one. Our rates of infection have been declining steadily, and I believe we are at the point where we can offer our students the choice between wearing and not wearing a mask.”

At the time of publication, it wasn’t clear if the board would still consider the CDC’s community transmission metrics down the line.

“We believe we came up with a balanced approach to move this forward,” Jackson told the board regarding the district’s proposed roadmap to optional masking on Feb. 14. “We believe that with the support of our public health officials, we can manage this. We believe that given the appropriate structures, we can continue to do what we’re doing.

“The only caveat I will put out there is that if the data begins to go back up,” he previously said, “We may have to come back to you and ask for a reversal.”

With 142 cases per 100,000 people and a 10.14% positivity rate, according to CDC county data on Tuesday, Chatham is still an area of high transmission. There have been 1,210 cases among students and staff since the first day of school, and just three clusters, according to the district’s COVID dashboard on Tuesday.

‘Free the Smiles’

State legislators passed a bill last Thursday — at nearly the same time Cooper made his recommendation — that would let parents decide whether to let their children wear masks in schools, instead of school boards. Known as “Free the Smiles,” the bill only mentions students, not adults.

The House of Representatives voted 76-42 in favor of the bill before the governor’s press conference; the Senate voted 28-17 to pass the bill as Cooper spoke. Also last Thursday, the governor said he was hesitant to remove power from school boards to adjust its authority to change masking rules. If Cooper were to veto the bill, it could be overturned if it received an equal amount of bipartisan support.

Some people suspect Cooper’s recommendation came in anticipation of the “Free the Smiles” bill. The News & Observer asked Republican Senate leader Phil Berger ahead of the vote on Tuesday if the legislation was a way to push Cooper to act.

“I think people in North Carolina are wanting their elected representatives to pursue matters they see as important,” Berger told the N&O. “And at this point in time, I can’t think of hardly any matter that parents of school-age children view as more important than getting their kids out of required masks. And so I think it’s incumbent upon us to move forward and address that issue.”

Since September, the board has taken a vote regarding its masking policy each month, in accordance with state law. Under the recently passed bill, such monthly votes would no longer be required.

CCS administrators and Chatham health officials have long followed public health guidance recommending that mask mandates remain in place until the county’s transmission rates fall below the CDC’s suggested levels, which are also included in the state health toolkit. It’s unclear how those recommendations will be updated in the toolkit, which Kinsley said would be updated by March 7.

By Tuesday, more than half of the state’s 115 school districts moved to make masks optional, with at least 25 school boards voting to do so since state health officials announced the easing of COVID-19 quarantine and contact tracing requirements.

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The passage of the optional masking bill and Cooper’s recommendation follows months of some parents calling for an elimination of mask requirements at board meetings — citing social and emotional harm to children and difficulty breathing from required mask-wearing.

National polls have consistently found throughout the pandemic that the majority of Americans are in favor of indoor mask mandates. A majority of parents want masks required in schools, a February Capitol Fax poll found, with 57% preferring masks and 36% wanting them optional. Still, some parents say more people are in favor of optional masking now than earlier in the pandemic. An informal, unscientific poll on the News + Record’s website indicated a vast majority of those responding were in favor of making masks optional, rather than mandated.

The debate over masking is present among students, too.

Rowe Kinnett, a 3rd grader at Pittsboro Elementary School, wrote board members last week regarding optional masking — shared with the News + Record by his mom.

“I am nervous about it because COVID-19 is still going on and is extremely contagious… also the kids in preschool aren’t even old enough to get vaccinated,” he wrote. “In conclusion, I want everyone to be safe and not get COVID-19. Thank you for reading my email.”

At CCS’s last board meeting, 9th grader Natalie Cojado asked the board to remove its mask mandate and social distancing policy.

“Along with it being ridiculous, these mandates and regulations are mentally damaging,” she told the board. “Are you protecting us the right way? Because it looks like you are causing more problems than fixing them. … Let me and my fellow students ages 5-18 decide what’s good for us. We know our bodies far better than you ever will.”

Following Gov. Cooper’s recommendation last Thursday, parents on both sides of the mask debate had questions.

For those against mandates, March 7 is an arbitrary date that is also too far away.

For those in favor of mandates, the recommendation toward optional masking — regardless of community transmission levels — feels rushed. Though cases are down significantly from the peak of Omicron, they are still about as high as before the Omicron surge.

Cooper did not address the community transmission metrics previously cited to make decisions about mask mandates during his recommendation.

Community members on both sides of the masking debate told the News + Record that Cooper’s recommendation seems to contradict his prior emphasis on following the science as a reason to keep mandates in place.

Mike Zelek, the director of the Chatham County Public Health Department, said there was much to be optimistic about regarding COVID.

“Case rates in Chatham have been coming down quickly over the last few weeks, from a peak of over 1,400 in mid-January to now below 200,” he told the News + Record on Sunday. “The positivity rate was over 20% and is now around 10%. And hospitalizations statewide are about half of what they were when they peaked in late January. This is all good news that we have been eager to see throughout the Omicron surge.”

Those numbers, however, still reflect high community transmission of COVID in Chatham, according to Zelek.

Zelek said the health department will continue encouraging people to get vaccinated, get boosted and wear masks indoors “so that come March 7th, we are in a strong place according to the metrics.”

“I hope this recent announcement encourages some out there to get vaccinated and get boosted,” he said. “And to be clear, this is not a recommendation against wearing a mask, it speaks specifically to mandates. Many, including me, will continue to wear masks, especially in crowded indoor settings. That’s appropriate, and I hope [it] does not become stigmatized as we continue to adapt to the rapidly changing and complex times.”

Eric Wolak, the chief operating officer and chief nursing officer at Chatham Hospital, told the News + Record on Friday that though “the Omicron surge is clearly subsiding,” case trends in the state and Chatham remain too high to move to optional masking.

“I believe we have reached an inflection point where the public is getting more and more exhausted from the pandemic, but the science remains the same,” Wolak said. “I believe this is what we are seeing here with Governor Cooper’s changes to mask requirements for the state. While it is very understandable that people desperately want a semblance of normalcy and are mentally and emotionally exhausted from two years of the pandemic, it is important to also reinforce that the science and the data indicate something different.”

In Chatham, about 60% of people are vaccinated — a statistic that Wolak said should lead to reinforcing mask wearing and vaccinations/boosters following Omicron.

“There is simply still too much of the virus in the community to ease up now,” he said. “I recognize that opinion is an unpopular one, which is why we are beginning to see changes in policy. However, policy is not science, and science is not policy.”

For his part, Cooper said his recommendation was a step toward “more normal day-to-day life.”

“It’s time to focus on getting our children a good education and improving our schools,” he said last Thursday, “no matter how you feel about masks.”

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