GUILFORD COUNTY, N.C. — North Carolina state health officials announced Wednesday that schools should continue to require grades K-8 to wear masks for the upcoming school year. Students in grades 9-12 who are not fully vaccinated are also strongly recommended to wear masks. This comes as the state is closely watching a rise in COVID-19 cases, particularly among those who are unvaccinated.
Gov. Roy Cooper and NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen announced the new guidance for schools as part of the Strong Schools NC toolkit. The guidance is based on COVID-19 safety recommendations from the CDC as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"Local school districts should protect students and staff by requiring masks and testing as outlined by Dr. Mandy Cohen," Cooper said.
New guidelines include social distancing being reduced to three feet and the removal of some protocols that were previously in place.
Cooper also encouraged students ages 12-17 to get vaccinated to further protect themselves and others. Currently, only 24% of kids in that age range are vaccinated. The COVID-19 vaccines aren't available to ages younger than that.
The new school guidelines come as state health officials are watching a rise in COVID-19 cases. On Wednesday, the daily case count reached its highest number in more than a month, by far, with more than 1,400 newly-confirmed cases.
Many school districts in the Triad haven't made the call on whether they will require masks for the new school year. Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools, Yadkin County Schools, Stokes County Schools, Rockingham County Schools, Davie County Schools all said they would follow the recommendations in the Strong Schools NC toolkit before the governor made his announcement on the latest guidelines.
Checking back in on Wednesday, many Triad districts told WFMY News 2 that they will take a closer look at the guidance before adopting their own rules.
Guilford County County Schools Superintendent, Sharon Contreras, released this statement following Cooper's new guidelines:
"We are carefully reviewing the updated guidance from Governor Cooper and the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit. We will take these updates into consideration as we prepare to discuss with the Board of Education and to update guidance for our schools. In the meantime, we encourage all eligible students and unvaccinated staff to get vaccinated prior to the start of the new school year."
However, the Randolph County school board of education has already voted to not require students or staff to wear masks - no matter their vaccination status.
It's not clear what could happen to school districts that don't implement the safety recommendations in the toolkit. However, these are strong recommendations - not requirements.
"We want schools to implement this toolkit that we've put forth today," Cooper said.
Cohen said the state task force would continue to closely watch the metrics as kids go back to school.
"If we have to do something different in the future, we will keep those options on the table," Cohen said.
Wake Forest Baptist Health Infectious Disease Expert Dr. Christopher Ohl said schools should keep masks in place to avoid new cases from popping up.
"I think the schools will still be able to stay open but they're going to have to be nimble and they're going to have to be wise because particularly if they decided to not have masking they're going to see clusters."
One Greensboro mother, Thaitianna Price, told WFMY News 2 on Tuesday that she hopes the masks will still be required in the fall. Her six children - ranging from first-graders to a senior in high school - attended virtually for most of the last school year, up until April.
"I will feel a sense of normalcy if things are being taken seriously as far as our safety," she said, "I feel very uncomfortable with [students] not wearing the masks, because you know what your family may do, but you don't know what other families are practicing - if they're safe. So, I don't feel comfortable with them not wearing masks. I would just consider homeschooling again."
On Wednesday, she said she was grateful for the state's guidelines emphasizing the use of masks.
"I’m really happy that [the Governor is] allowing us to continue to wear the masks. I feel like it’s going to be safer for our children, and it’s going to help with the spread so that they can stay in class and learn," Price said.