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Face Mask Decisions Left With Local NC Schools In House Bill

A bill advancing through the NC Legislature has stirred up the debate over whether masks should be required in schools. The legislation would let districts decide. If they chose not to, that would go against the Governor Roy Cooper's executive orders and guidance from state and federal health officials.

Cooper's current executive order and guidance by state health officials direct that most everyone wear face coverings indoors in public and private schools. Currently people age 12 and over can receive COVID-19 vaccines.

The bill, approved 66-44 and heading to the Senate, would give local school boards and leaders of nonpublic schools the "exclusive authority" to decide on face coverings. A local board of education would have to vote by Aug. 1 on a face covering mandate for the first month of the school year. And districts that require masks during the year also would have to vote monthly on continuing the policy.

Cooper would still have authority to issue orders requiring masks at individual schools to reduce transmissions. But the measure marks another effort by Republicans to scale back the Democratic governor's influence over the state's coronavirus response.

Rep. David Willis, a Union County Republican shepherding the bill, framed the measure as a way to rebuild confidence in students who have felt isolated from friends and teachers since the pandemic, which included periods of virtual classes and social distancing.

"We will grant the Governor the opportunity to address schools on a case by case basis as needed in order to protect or to best serve those local communities," Willis said.

Willis's son, an eighth grader, also gave his public testimony this week in favor of lifting mask mandates.

Democratic Rep. Susan Fisher of Buncombe County said it's the wrong time to alter decision-making on masks with a COVID-19 variant that spreads more easily surfacing.

Some school boards have been inundated with messages from parents about mask requirements. Earlier this month, Harnett County's school board decided to not require masks at summer learning. Children under 12 are not yet able to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

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