New face mask requirements are starting in North Carolina's private schools at the same time a new report shows they continue to account for the majority of COVID-19 school clusters in the state.
New figures released Tuesday by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services show that private schools make up 14 of the state's 26 active K-12 school coronavirus clusters. Those 14 private schools have 175 confirmed COVID-19 cases among students and staff, including as many as 26 cases at Liberty Christian Academy in Durham.
Statewide, there are 1.5 million students in 2,671 public schools compared to 103,959 students in 750 private schools. But private schools are seeing more — and bigger — COVID-19 clusters compared to public schools.
Private schools had been exempt from the state requirement that students, school employees and visitors at K-12 public schools wear face coverings. But on Monday, Gov. Roy Cooper announced a new executive order that adds private schools to the list of places where a face mask is now mandatory.
"Everyone needs to wear a mask whenever you are with someone you don't live with," Cooper said at a news conference.
In addition to private school students, the order will impact some students who are being homeschooled or otherwise learning from home and not on a school campus.
Some of the state's 750 private schools already require face coverings, such as the 29 schools operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh.
It's not immediately clear how many private schools don't require face coverings and whether they'll start now.
"For those private schools who don't have a mask mandate right now, there's really no way for the governor to enforce the mandate," said Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation. "I suspect many of those schools will decide a mask mandate is not something that's consistent with their operation."
Joe Haas, executive director of the N.C. Christian Schools Association, said that most, if not all, of their member schools already require masks.
"I understand that our state like others have to have increased guidelines," Haas said. "It's too soon to know what the impact will be."
The majority of the state's public schools started the school year in August using only remote classes, but a growing number are reopening for at least limited in-person instruction. In contrast, the state's private schools have been open for in-person instruction since the summer.
"These private schools may be doing everything in their power to prevent coronavirus outbreaks and still finding themselves with clusters," Stoops said.