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'A new phase': Cooper moves to end North Carolina's mask mandate
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'A new phase': Cooper moves to end North Carolina's mask mandate

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RALEIGH — North Carolina health officials and Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday announced they will eliminate the statewide mask mandate and ease requirements wearing face coverings in schools.

The announcement comes as the the delta variant, a more contagious version of the coronavirus, is causing a spike in new cases not seen since the height of the pandemic.

Still, there’s long been pressure on Cooper to end the mask mandate — especially as the state rebounded from the worst of the pandemic. On Wednesday, those critics finally got their wish.

The state’s new recommendations urge K-8 schools to require masks for students and staff while they are indoors but allows fully vaccinated high school students and staff to be unmasked.

The mask mandate expires at 5 p.m. on July 30 — a Friday — which is the same time the updated school reopening guidance takes effect.

Cooper and the state’s top public health official, Dr. Mandy Cohen, on Wednesday repeatedly declined to offer specifics on how they’d enforce the recommendations and crack down on districts that move to let all students return to the classroom without a face covering.

“We know masks work,” Cooper, a Democrat, said in a news conference. “The health and safety and ability of our students to learn in person depends on school leaders following this guidance.”

Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras said in a statement Wednesday night that the district is carefully reviewing the updated guidance.

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"We will take these updates into consideration as we prepare to discuss with the Board of Education and to update guidance for our schools," she said. "In the meantime, we encourage all eligible students and unvaccinated staff to get vaccinated prior to the start of the new school year."

In Guilford County, the first students return to classes Aug. 5 with the majority beginning the year on Aug. 23.

The North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s largest lobbying group representing teachers, called the governor’s decision to eliminate the statewide mask mandate “very poorly timed.”

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been on the rise in North Carolina amid the spread of the more lethal delta variant. In the last two weeks, cases have more than tripled and hospitalizations have gone up over 69%.

Making matters worse is that fewer and fewer North Carolinians are getting a COVID-19 vaccine. Cohen said 94% of new cases and hospitalizations in the state were among unvaccinated individuals. Just 24% of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 are fully vaccinated.

Cooper’s announcement follows the American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday recommending “universal masking.” Students over age 2 and school staff should wear face coverings even if they’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus as “a significant portion of the student population is not yet eligible for vaccines,” the group said in its new guidance for the upcoming school year.

Throughout Wednesday’s news conference, Cooper and Cohen found themselves trying to strike a balance between communicating the seriousness of the new delta variant and the need to implement their own masking policies.

“We are entering a new phase of this pandemic,” Cooper said. “We’ve gotten a lot of people vaccinated.”

Cooper defended his decision to end the statewide mask mandate and said he’s spoken with several governors who have already done so. He said North Carolina is working to “turn the final corner of this disease” by boosting vaccinations.

Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on issues that don’t get as much coverage.

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