Gov. Roy Cooper vetoes ‘Free the Smiles’ legislation. School districts can continue to decide whether to lift mask requirements

A Republican-backed bill to make face masks exclusively optional in North Carolina’s public schools was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday.

Senate Bill 173, also known as the Free the Smiles Act, was approved by the state House and the state Senate last week.

Cooper, a Democrat, has urged school districts to lift mask mandates in response to declining COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations and amid rising vaccinations rates.

The governor noted Thursday that bipartisan legislation he signed into law last year allows school boards to decide whether to require masking.

Gov. Roy Cooper

“Passing laws for political purposes that encourage people to pick and choose which health rules they want to follow is dangerous and could tie the hands of public health officials in the future,” Cooper said in a statement.

The Raleigh News & Observer has reported that districts are about evenly split between those requiring masks and those that do not.

School masking requirements have been a rallying point for many parents who contend children are harmed academically and socially when forced to wear masks.

House Speaker Tim Moore

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, expressed disappointment at Cooper’s veto. Moore called SB 173 a “common-sense bill.”

“All health care decisions for our students belong with their parents, not with politicians or bureaucrats,” Moore said in a statement. “Actions speak louder than words, and the governor should do more than ‘encourage’ schools to lift their mask mandates. Return this decision back to parents.”

Policy Watch previously reported that the Wake County Public Schools (WCPS), the state’s largest school district, voted Tuesday to make masks optional in early March.

WCPS school board member Jim Martin, a veteran NC State University chemistry professor, urged board members to rethink the decision.

“Anybody who looks at a pandemic and makes a decision based on dates and not metrics is not making a data-based decision, is not making a health based decision. It’s making a political-based decision,” Martin said.

He warned that a fifth wave of the virus is coming.

“If you look in Europe, in most places, the fifth wave of the pandemic comes about six weeks after the peak of the fourth wave,” Martin advised.

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