The North Carolina House passed a bill Wednesday that would grant local school boards the authority to make face masks optional for the upcoming school year, allowing them not to comply with the state’s ongoing mask mandate that remains in effect for schools.
Senate Bill 173, known as the Free the Smiles Act, would allow public school districts, charter schools and private schools to set their own mask policies. North Carolina schools, both public and private, are currently considered at-risk settings and fall under Gov. Roy Cooper’s scaled-back mask mandate, which he recently extended through the end of July.
The bill passed the House by a vote of 66 to 44, mostly along party lines, except for three Democrats who voted in favor the measure: Reps. Charles Graham of Lumberton, Shelly Willingham of Rocky Mount and Michael Wray of Gaston.
It now returns to the Senate, which passed an earlier version of the bill in March that did not contain the newly added provisions about face masks in schools.
“The data is clear. The harm that we’re doing to our children from a mental health perspective is overwhelming,” said Rep. David Willis, a Union County Republican, during floor debate on the bill Wednesday.
Willis introduced the new version of SB 173 on Monday and said it’s important that North Carolina students return to a mask-free school environment as soon as possible.
“It’s time to give them the opportunity to take off the masks, to return to class as normal, and to get into a position where they can start to rebuild the confidence and the camaraderie that they’ve had with their friends, with their classmates, and with their teachers, and to rebuild those relationships, to overcome the obstacles that we have put on them over the past year,” Willis said.
Rep. Susan Fisher, the House Democratic whip, pushed back against the bill, saying that the threat of the pandemic was not over and freeing schools from complying with the mask mandate was dangerous.
“Of course we are concerned about the mental health of our students,” Fisher said.
Addressing the mental health of students should mean staffing schools with more counselors and nurses, not undermining the current mask mandate, she said, especially amid reports of variants of COVID-19 that may potentially be more transmissible or deadly for younger people.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, has said North Carolina will continue to follow federal guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends that children continue to wear masks in schools. Many children haven’t been vaccinated yet; only the Pfizer vaccine is authorized for children 12 and older.
The state may reevaluate the extension of the mask mandate for schools only if the CDC changes its guidance, Cohen has said.
The bill quickly moved through the House on Wednesday, advancing through the House Rules Committee on voice vote a few hours before it was added to the legislative calendar for consideration by the full chamber.
The committee approved a last-minute amendment introduced by Rep. Erin Paré, a Wake County Republican, that would require school districts that decide to keep mask requirements in place to have their school boards hold a vote approving their decision by Aug. 1. Those school boards would have to hold monthly votes for each additional month a district wishes to keep the requirement in place.
Charter schools and private schools that wish to keep masks as required would be exempt from the Aug. 1 deadline and the monthly vote requirement.
The push by lawmakers this week to give schools the authority to make their own decisions about face masks for the upcoming school year comes days after the Harnett County school board voted to defy Cooper’s mask mandate and make face coverings optional.
Parents in Wake County, the state’s largest school system, also pressured their school board to follow Harnett County and defy the governor’s mask mandate.
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