Johnston County schools make masks optional, despite new guidance for mandate

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Masks will be optional for students in Johnston County schools in the upcoming academic year, despite recent federal and state guidance that recommends mask wearing indoors, even among those who are vaccinated.

The Johnston County school board voted 4-3 Thursday to make the face coverings optional for elementary and secondary schools.

The decision, made at a special session at 5 p.m., came shortly after a 3 p.m. press conference where Gov. Roy Cooper urged mask wearing indoors — including for those vaccinated — in counties with high or substantial spread, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes Johnston County.

Johnston County Schools Superintendent Eric Bracy informed board members, prior to the vote, what Cooper had recommended for K-12 schools.

The school board called the special meeting to vote on their mask policy a few weeks ago, after the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services released recommendations that all elementary and middle schools require everyone, including those vaccinated, to wear masks. Vaccinations are only available now for people 12 and older.

At the time, the state said vaccinated students and staff at high schools would not need to wear masks, but anyone not vaccinated would.

Statewide, just 26% of school-age children 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated.

After the CDC’s updated guidance, a reversal from previous recommendations, North Carolina adjusted their recommendations again. That means they recommend school districts require masks in all school levels, regardless of vaccination status.

“Look at this again,” Cooper said Thursday, urging school boards who have made masks optional to reconsider their decisions.

“Look at the number in your county, and the danger your students could face,” Cooper said.

The urge for action comes as the delta variant, a more transmissible strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has caused a surge of cases and hospitalizations across the country.

On Thursday, the state reported over 3,200 new cases, the highest since February, and over 1,100 hospitalizations. Average new case rates have increased sixfold over the last month, and almost all new cases are among those unvaccinated, state officials say.

In Johnston County, 39% of the population is fully vaccinated, behind the statewide rate of 47%.

Over the last week, DHHS has reported 168 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in Johnston County, higher than Wake, Durham, Orange and Chatham counties.

Other Triangle school districts have not weighed in on the CDC guidance, nor North Carolina’s recommendations.

In Durham, the district is requiring students and staff at year-round schools to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. Officials said they would revisit mask requirements in August, and the board has a work session scheduled Aug. 12.

Both Wake County public schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have meetings scheduled Aug. 3.

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