Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday, signed an Executive Order extending a handful of COVID-19 safety measures including mask requirements in schools until July 30.
"We don't have research to show what happens when you take a group of unvaccinated children and put them together indoors at this stage in the pandemic," said Duke Pediatrics Professor Dr. Michael Smith.
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Smith is currently running Duke's Pfizer clinical trial, studying the mRNA vaccine's effectiveness in children under 12.
While Smith said data show outdoor gatherings are low risk for unvaccinated children who are unmasked, there is no data to show that while COVID-19 is still transmitting in the community, gathering those children indoors without masks would be safe.
On Monday, about a dozen parents gathered at Dix Park in Raleigh, demanding their children be allowed to drop the mask at school.
The group Open North Carolina organized the rally billed as "Free the Smiles," encouraging attendees to share why they think masks should be optional for students and submit signatures to be delivered to NCDHHS Sec. Dr. Mandy Cohen.
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"We need to get these masks off of the faces so that we can really have good connection with people again," said Lana Witt, a Raleigh mom. "If people are scared and they wanna be in the masks, let them choose to wear one. But those that really want the freedom, it's really our civil rights and our constitutional rights that are at stake right now."
Another Raleigh mom of four, Julie Savage, said parents should have the ability to choose whether to mask their children.
"We should have the freedom to pick what medical device that we use," she said. "It's a psychological issue; making a child wear a mask all day, it's sad."
According to the CDC, 314 children under 18 years old in the U.S. have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic; in North Carolina, three children have died.
Smith said one death is one too many, but he is also concerned about other potential side effects from the disease that the medical community is still learning about.
"I think it's a combination of protecting the community, protecting the teachers, but also we don't really know what the long-term effects of COVID are," he said. "So it's one thing to say yes, kids are less likely to die, but we've seen several patients in our own practice- I'm a pediatric infectious disease doctor- who have had significant problems from COVID even though they never go into the hospital and never needed a ventilator."
Smith said he would be comfortable telling teachers and students they don't need a mask indoors if enough of them were vaccinated, but he doesn't expect children under 12 to have access to COVID-19 vaccines before the start of the next school year.
"We don't need to wear a mask to prevent a disease that doesn't exist anymore," Smith said. "I think unfortunately though, as we're seeing variants out there, I don't think we're going to be in a COVID-free space by the time schools start up in the fall."