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House passes bill seeking to lift mask mandate in NC schools

The N.C. House passed a bill seeking to give school boards the exclusive authority to determine whether students must wear face masks in the upcoming school year on Wednesday. 

Senate Bill 173, called the “Free the Smiles Act,” would strip away Governor Roy Cooper’s authority to  issue state-wide mask mandates for schools, leaving him with the ability to do so only for individual schools during a state of emergency. 

The Governor’s current executive order requires all students in public and nonpublic schools to wear face masks while indoors. On June 11, Cooper announced he would be extending the State of Emergency, saying that although the state has made massive strides in combating COVID-19, the emergency classification allows for easier access to federal relief funds. 

Rep. David Willis, a Union County Republican, presented the bill to the House Rules Committee on Wednesday. Rep. Erin Paré, a Wake County Republican, added an amendment to the bill that would require all local school boards to take a vote on whether or not they will require face masks by August 1. If a school does require masks, they will have to revisit the issue every month and hold a vote on whether or not to keep them. 

“It’s supposed to increase transparency and communication with parents who are concerned about this issue,” Paré said. 

Two members of the public spoke in support of the bill, including Tracy Taylor, a physical therapist based in the triangle. 

“The most important thing that I want to explain to you all is that there have been so many studies and so much data that are in support of students not masking at all,” she said. 

Taylor was also a part of a “Free the Smiles” rally that was held outside the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services building on Wednesday.

“Bring your friends + signs to let Mandy Cohen know our kids don’t need to be masked at school,” she wrote on Twitter. 

A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that over 4 million children in the U.S. had contracted COVID-19, but the mortality rate among infected children was between 0.00 percent – 0.03 percent. According to data from 23 states, between 0.1 percent – 1.9 percent of all child COVID-19 cases were severe enough to require hospitalization. 

In a press conference earlier this month, NCDHHS Director Mandy Cohen said that it’s important that children under 12, who are ineligible to get the vaccine, continue to wear masks in school.

“The CDC continues to recommend that those who are unvaccinated … wear a mask indoors. That includes the vast majority of our children who are in K-12 schools and that will continue until the guidance changes from the CDC,” she said.

Willis said that the bill is flexible enough to mitigate infection in schools while also loosening restrictions. 

“This still allows the governor to act on a school by school basis if necessary,” he said. “If there were something to come up where a different strain were to come through, or something were to happen, I’m sure we’d be happy to bring that back in front of this body for a larger discussion. But we’re comfortable with where it’s at today.”

The bill now goes back to the Senate.

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