North Carolina parents could permit their K-12 students to opt out of mask-wearing mandates set by local education boards inside schools in legislation approved by the General Assembly on Thursday.
The bill now heads to the desk of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who as the final vote was being completed held a news conference to encourage local governments — including boards of education — to end broad mask requirements, as COVID-19 transmission rates and hospitalizations fall.
“This (omicron) variant is clearly more contagious, yet generally causes less severe illness, particularly to people who are vaccinated and boosted. And now, people know how to gauge their level of risk and decide how to best protect themselves,” Cooper said. This and other updated health recommendations for schools would begin March 7.
Cooper didn't say what he'd do with the opt-out measure, which surfaced from Republicans back in Raleigh this week to redraw redistricting maps. But he said he has “concerns that it's unwise and irresponsible.” The governor could veto the measure, sign it into law or let it become law without his signature.
“I mean, are we going to let people pick and choose which public health rules they're going to follow?” Cooper asked.
The Senate and House approved the measure with slight veto-proof margins, although several senators were absent. A handful of Democrats joined GOP legislators in backing the change.
Cooper ended a statewide mask mandate last summer but at the time strongly urged school districts to approve policies requiring masks indoors for students and staff. The General Assembly later approved a law telling districts to set mask policies this school year and for school boards to vote on those policies monthly.
The number of districts that have ended staff and student mask mandate policies has soared in recent weeks as the number of reported positive cases have fallen. Now slightly over half of the 115 districts have mask-optional policies, according to the North Carolina School Boards Association.
Local governments also are doing away with indoor-mask policies. Mecklenburg County, the state's second-largest county, voted Wednesday to end its mask mandate on Feb. 26.
GOP leaders said it was past time to let students attend schools maskless if their parents agree, saying state health guidance recommending masks be worn has resulted in a de facto requirement. They pointed to surrounding states — most recently Virginia — that have done away with mask mandates.
The bill “is going to reaffirm the absolute right that parents should be the ones making these decisions for their children and not government,” House Speaker Tim Moore said while presenting the measure in an education committee.
Children have faced obstacles to learning and socialization by having to wear face coverings, other bill supporters said. “Our youngest students are suffering under these mask mandates,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Watauga County Republican.
Legislative Democrats said their GOP colleagues were rushing the bill when it was likely that nearly all districts would soon make masking optional.
“I don't think it needs to set up a situation that confuses parents,” Democratic Rep. Graig Meyer of Orange County told Moore. “It needs to set up a situation that really creates clarity for folks to understand what's going on.”
The head of the state's largest teacher lobbying group criticized the proposal. It “undermines local decision-making and prioritizes partisan politics over public health and safety,” North Carolina Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly said in a news release.
The measure also would make clear that unmasked students can't be treated differently than those with face coverings. The monthly school board votes on face mask policies also would be repealed.
Masks would still be required on school buses, in keeping with federal rules. Moore said the governor still could use his emergency powers to restore any mask mandate should COVID-19 transmissions soar.