Wake Schools begins steps to remove mask mandate in the 'coming days'

CARY, N.C. (WTVD) -- Wake County Public Schools announced Friday morning that masks will become optional in the "coming days."

The largest school district in the state is the latest to decide to loosen restrictions.

A handful of other schools including Cumberland County, Harnett County and Johnston County schools have already voted to make masks optional.

On Thursday, Gov. Roy Cooper and state health leaders recommended schools and local governments consider retracting mask mandates by March 7.

"This pandemic has been difficult for all of us. It's been particularly tough on parents, teachers and schoolchildren. It's time to focus on getting our children a good education and improving our schools. No matter how you feel about masks," Cooper said during the news conference on Thursday.

RELATED: Wake County to end COVID-19 mask mandate Friday, Feb. 25

The Wake County School Board will meet Tuesday afternoon to discuss when to start making masks optional.

"Hearing DHHS say that this is coming was very important and it was very important that we have a runway for our families whether they want to take this time now to finish vaccine for their students or themselves or get a booster if they're eligible," said Wake County School Board chair Lindsay Mahaffey.

She said guidance from NCDHHS was helpful and the district feels comfortable taking this next step.

"I think we're hearing very clearly from DHHS that they feel comfortable given the metrics given vaccines, given how this virus has changed," she said.

Friday's announcement was to give families time to prepare for the inevitable shift in restrictions.

"It may not come fast enough for some but allowing that process to give people time to wrap their heads around it and to have those conversations in their home so that we are not just switching gears without having a runway as we felt so many times in these past two years," Mahaffey said.

Keith Poston, the president of WakeEd Partnership echoed his support of the decision.

"I've heard some mixed feelings today for sure, but I think it's inevitable. But I also think that people understand that things are different," he said.

In place of masks, state health officials are pushing vaccinations. Only a quarter of North Carolina children 5-11 years old are vaccinated and a little less than half of the children from 12-17 years old are partially vaccinated.

Other districts, such as Chapel Hill Carrboro are choosing to continue to review options. Its board will provide an update on March 3.

Durham Public Schools said it would hold the next vote on its mask mandate at the Feb. 24 board meeting.

In the meantime, face-covering requirements remain in effect on all DPS campuses, and the district said it would continue contact tracing at the classroom level and surveillance testing for students and staff.

Local health experts have mixed feelings about the push to end mask mandates.

Dr. David Kirk, WakeMed's system chief medical officer, said these suggestions don't come as a surprise.

"Our ICU numbers are better, our number of COVID patients in the hospital is better. I think with those numbers getting better at some point, there's a reasonable place that you have to kind of lower your shields," he said.

He said as more school districts and governments weigh their options they should consider ICU admissions and COVID-19 hospitalizations

"My hope is that when numbers are getting better, we'll open up the world a little bit and allow people to have a break and if we need to again, that hopefully people will come to our site and protect us," Kirk said.

Meanwhile. Dr. Rodney McCaskill, the chief medical officer at Johnston Health, said he was a bit surprised by the state's push to end masking.

"I think there's a lot of factors that should weigh in before making these decisions. I think they need to take a look at the rate of infections, the number of people in hospitals, how effective our treatments are at preventing people from being in the hospital, all those things need to be considered short term and long term when they make a drastic change," McCaskill said.

He also said the hospitals he oversees are still pretty full, just not solely of COVID-19 patients, and said retracting the mandate could have an effect.

"It certainly could have some effects on the health care systems here in the state. Many of them are still full, frankly, of patients and so there isn't a lot of room for additional patients," he said.

These decisions come as the CDC Transmission map still shows a majority of North Carolina in high transmission.

The CDC still recommends universal masking inside schools, however, the agency is expected to update guidance sometime next week.

Students will still have to wear masks on school buses regardless of the districts' decision because of federal transportation guidelines.

State lawmakers also passed the Free the Smiles Act on Thursday which would make masks optional for students statewide. The bill still needs to be signed by Cooper.
Copyright © 2022 WTVD-TV. All Rights Reserved.