RALEIGH: Today, Governor Roy Cooper, NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen, and State Health Director Dr. Betsey Tilson sent a letter to school boards that have failed to adopt the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit urging them to protect their students and staff in the new school year.

“The science is clear that children learn better when they attend school in person and the science is also clear that masks reduce COVID infections so we can keep them there. The Delta variant is moving fast and I strongly urge school leaders who have made masks optional to reconsider and make them mandatory,” said Governor Roy Cooper.

“In-person learning is very important for the academic and overall wellbeing of our children,” said NCDHHS Secretary Mandy K. Cohen, M.D. “following the recommendations in the StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit, school districts can greatly lower the risk of viral spread to children and staff in the classroom this year.”

“The highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly through North Carolina,” said NCDHHS Chief Medical Officer and State Health Director Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, M.D., MPH. “A layered approach to prevention, including universal masking, helps protect the health and well-being of students and staff and helps keep everyone in school – teaching, learning, and thriving.”

The letter outlines the increasing rates of COVID-19 infection in children and higher numbers of hospitalizations for pediatric patients, as well as how overall cases have increased by more than 50 percent in the past seven days. The letter also emphasizes that vaccines remain the best weapon to fight the pandemic, but since children under 12 are ineligible they remain vulnerable. It also offers state health leaders help to local school systems and county public health officials to assist with the implementation of the toolkit health protections.

The updated StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit is aligned with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics guidance, which urges keeping students in schools for in-person learning while also mandating face masks indoors. The Toolkit says schools with students in kindergarten through twelfth grade should require all children and staff to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

This guidance became effective July 30 and was adopted by the State Board of Education. Local school leaders are responsible for requiring and implementing protocols in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit in consultation with their local health departments.

To date, North Carolina has administered nearly 10 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 58 percent of the adult population fully vaccinated. Sixty-two percent of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, including 87 percent of North Carolinians 65 and over.

Read the letter here and in the full text below.

Learn more about the state’s vaccine distribution at myspot.nc.gov (English) or Vacunate.nc.gov (Spanish). Use NCDHHS’ online tool Find a Vaccine Location to find a nearby vaccine site. Call the state’s COVID-19 vaccine hotline at 888-675-4567.

August 12, 2021

Dear School Board Chair:

We are writing with an urgent request that you fully implement the health protections in the North Carolina StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit to protect students and staff in this new school year.

Keeping children and staff in the classroom full-time for in-person learning is essential and following these health guidelines is the best way to ensure it. None of us wants to close schools to in-person learning.

Because children under 12 cannot yet get a vaccine and the percent of children 12-18 years old who are vaccinated is low, all students, teachers, and staff in grades K-12 should wear masks in schools regardless of vaccination status.

Our urgency is due to the rapidly increasing spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 in North Carolina. Unfortunately, COVID-19 hospitalizations have more than doubled over the past two weeks, cases have increased by more than 50% in seven days, and the number of people going to the emergency department with COVID-like symptoms is rising.

In addition, we are seeing increasing rates of infection in children. While it is still unclear if the Delta variant causes more severe illness in children than prior variants, we are seeing increasing hospitalizations for pediatric patients. In addition, we are still learning more about the risk of long-term complications in children.

Vaccines remain our best weapon to fight the pandemic, and we ask that you find ways to encourage your staff and eligible students to get vaccinated. Many of our counties lag the state and nation on vaccine uptake.

As you know, several school districts which had decided to make face coverings optional wisely have reversed course. Please join them and others by adopting strong health protocols.

We would be happy to join you and your county public health experts to assist with implementation. We know this year brings you challenges like no other, and we appreciate the work you are doing to educate our state’s children.

Read the full letter here.