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Change in state COVID-19 guidance gives school district freedom on masking

SALISBURY — Changes to the state’s COVID-19 protocols for K-12 schools means Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ optional mask policy is in compliance with the state heading into this school year.

On Wednesday, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services issued an update to its COVID-19 toolkit that has served as the guiding document for day-to-day school operations for more than a year.

Educators were anticipating an overhaul to the document this week that would give some clarity on what precautions will be required when classes begin next month. Notably, some precautions that were required are now labeled as things districts “should” require, and the terminology for plans A, B and C have been completely removed along with an emphasis on in-person learning. The changes will take effect July 30.

On July 12, the Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education approved a motion to make wearing masks optional in schools. The move pre-empted expiring executive orders and the updates to the toolkit. Board member Travis Allen, who made the motion at the time, expressed wanting to take a stand on the issue.

The motion included not requiring vaccination or proof of vaccination for people on school campuses, though there has been no move by Gov. Roy Cooper or DHHS to require immunization on public school campuses.

After the announcement from DHHS, RSS issued a statement noting the change in language in the toolkit and that the board decision made last week remains in effect. The district plans to continue with other safety measures including distancing and hand washing.

If the state toolkit still required masks, the board would have been disobeying a mandate from DHHS with the decision to make masks optional. The board’s motion was immediate, but classes will not begin until Aug. 11.

Board attorney Ken Soo advised the likelihood of a misdemeanor criminal liability case resulting from the decision would have been low.

The toolkit says schools should still require all students K-8 to wear masks and require anyone who is not fully vaccinated in high school to also wear a mask.

The toolkit now includes guidance for districts to encourage people to get vaccinated. RSS will hold three vaccination clinics at its facilities in the next month. The first clinic will be held on Friday at Wallace Educational Forum.

The state is approaching two consecutive weeks of increasing COVID-19 infection rates, increasing hospitalizations and climbing test positivity rates. There were 1,434 new cases reported in the state on Wednesday. In Rowan County, 33% of people have received at least one vaccine dose.

Cooper said in a statement that 60% of adults in North Carolina have now received at least one dose of the vaccine.

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