North Carolina health officials are working on streamlined rules for COVID-19 safety in schools, as they prepare for a year when vaccination is up, cases are down and students are expected to return in person.
"We really should take a moment and feel celebratory about how far we've come, because rates of community transmission are relatively low," Chief Deputy Health Secretary Susan Gale Perry told the state Board of Education Thursday. "We are getting more folks vaccinated; we need to do more work on that."
She said her office plans to update its rules later this month, eliminating some mandates to reflect the lower risk and latest research. For instance, she said quarantine rules are likely to be revised or eliminated.
"We are also very aware that more districts now want flexibility to react to the unique circumstances in their community," Perry said. "There is considerable variability across our state, in communities and in counties, as far as the percentage of the population that is actually vaccinated."
But the requirement that students and adults wear face coverings in school seems likely to continue. Perry said data from North Carolina schools last year indicates that masks could prove useful at a time when children under 12 still can't be vaccinated, many adults have chosen not to be and the highly contagious Delta variant is reaching the state.
"Proper masking was the most effective and has been the most effective mitigation strategy to prevent COVID-19 in schools," she said. "And they found that that was the case more so even than the social distancing."
That won't be popular with everyone. In Union County, some parents and school board members have said it's time to lift the mandate. Iredell-Statesville Schools recently issued a news release saying the district "anticipates masks to be optional," later clarifying that it was based on an erroneous assumption that the COVID-19 state of emergency would be over June 30.
Perry said the federal Centers for Disease Control is expected to update its guidance on COVID-19 safety in schools in the next few days. State officials want to incorporate that information into their revised rules, she said.
The state Board of Education also heard a report on COVID-19 screening tests in schools. The state has $300 million in federal aid to spend on a screening program for K-12 schools, and state nursing supervisor Ann Nichols said more than $200 million of that will be available to beef up school nursing staff across the state. To get the aid, school districts will have to add COVID-19 screening tests in the coming school year.
Nichols said those nurses can also help with other needs. For instance, she said vision screenings were sidelined during the pandemic.
"In order to make sure that students aren’t going two or three years without vision screening and unidentified and treated visual deficiencies, this staff could be used to expand a screening testing that the school normally does in order to catch up," she said.
Districts and charter schools have until Sept. 13 to opt in to the COVID-19 testing program, which qualifies them for the aid to hire and train school nurses.
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