Cooper shifts school mask guidance as lawmakers pass bill allowing parents to opt out

(The Center Square) – As the North Carolina General Assembly voted Thursday to allow parents to opt out of student mask mandates for their children, Gov. Roy Cooper and state health officials updated guidance recommending the requirement in schools.

Cooper said Thursday afternoon he encourages schools and local governments to end their face covering requirements. The General Assembly had just taken a break from their court-ordered requirement to finalize revised legislative district maps to approve the Free the Smiles Act.

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, heavily criticized the governor for not updating the guidance last week. He led the effort to pass the legislation.

“All health care decisions for our students belong with their parents, not with politicians or bureaucrats,” Moore said. “No one cares about these children more than their parents, and no one is better-suited to make these decisions.”

Masking requirements have been left up to local school districts. Many followed the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ (NCDHHS) StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit.

The toolkit recommended that “schools have a universal masking policy in place for everyone (age 2 and older), in areas of high or substantial transmission,” according to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention guidance. Schools, however, could make face coverings optional when community transmission levels drop. Under the new guidance, masks are required only if there is a COVID-19 infection and are recommended after exposure to the virus.

“We are taking a positive step on mask requirements to help us move safely toward a more normal day-to-day life,” Cooper said. “It’s time to focus on getting our children a good education and improving our schools, no matter how you feel about masks.”

Masks still are required in health care and long-term care facilities and on certain transportation.

Democrats in the Legislature argued the Free the Smiles Act would put schools at risk for outbreaks and is politically motivated.

“This feels irresponsible,” said Sen. Natalie Marcus, D-Mecklenburg. “We should allow our schools to make these important decisions. We should not allow individual parent preferences to supersede public health needs and override everyone else’s rights. This bill is political, and it’s wrong.”