Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina Republicans said they will file a bill next week in the House to ban schools from requiring students to wear face masks, a decision that comes amid growing pressure on local school boards to drop COVID-19 mask mandates.
State health director Betsey Tilson recommended last week that students and staff continue wearing face coverings in schools until coronavirus transmission rates decrease. About 18% of all coronavirus tests are coming back positive in North Carolina, a percentage much lower than what was reported during the past two months, but well above the state’s goal of 5%.
Republican lawmakers, however, want to ban schools from requiring face masks, even in the event of a future outbreak. Masking should be a parental choice, not something dictated by schools or health officials, Senate Leader Phil Berger said Tuesday.
“There are a lot of parents who have expressed great frustration with what’s going on in the schools, including the required masks situation,” he said.
About a quarter of the school districts in WRAL’s viewing area have made face masks optional as of Tuesday, but Republican legislative leaders say other districts are not dropping the mandates quickly enough and need to move faster. They claim masks are harmful to students’ social and academic growth.
“The science really argues for allowing students to attend school without a mask,” Berger, R-Rockingham, said. “And the negative consequences to our kids are something that are far outweighing the positive benefit.”
The CDC and state health leaders disagree. They recommend continuing masking in schools till child vaccination rates are higher and transmission rates are lower.
The expected bill is the latest politicization of restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus.
More than 100 people—including parents and conservative activists—gathered outside the Wake County Public School System’s main office in Cary ahead of Tuesday’s board of education meeting to protest mask mandates.
“It’s just been too long now,” Amy Marshall, the director of the Carolina Teachers Alliance, said through a microphone .“The number of cases has declined.”
Former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, a conservative Republican running for a U.S. Senate seat representing the state, told the crowd to keep up the fight. Liberals want to control their lives, he said as he urged them to stand up for personal freedom. “Now is the time that we dig in,” he said.
Political science experts say that the proposed school mask ban is more about the midterm elections than students’ health. Republicans are attempting to keep their base mobilized by calling for the end of mask mandates and COVID-19 restrictions, even in areas that are already dropping many of these requirements, said David McLennan, professor of political science at Meredith College.
“What some would see as a political advantage is to keep the issue alive in terms of the minds of voters,” McLennan said. “It’s also an effort to get people on the record. If you vote against an effort to remove mask mandates, then it looks like you’re always gonna be in favor of restrictions, keeping everybody locked down.”
Sen Mike Woodard says forcing Democrats to vote on this bill, which goes against the advice of state health officials, will almost certainly yield political ammunition for Republicans this fall.
“The mailers are probably already being designed as we speak,” Woodard, D-Durham, told WRAL News Tuesday.
If the bill passes and is vetoed, and GOP lawmakers attempt a veto override, that could put Democratic lawmakers in an even more difficult position: choosing between supporting Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto or angering some constituents.
“Clearly, this is intended to put pressure on those legislators who are in swing districts,” Woodard said. “They’re often rural and suburban districts where perhaps this is gaining some steam with parents.”
Berger said if the issue has been made political, it’s been made that way by state health officials, not lawmakers. He accused Democrats in state government positions of appeasing “teachers’ unions” that he says are “more aggressive in terms of lockdowns and in terms of masks.
“They’re basically listening to the folks that fund their campaigns,” Berger said of Democratic state officials. “It hasn’t been science. It’s been political science.”
A similar pattern has been playing out in other Republican-controlled states. Virginia lawmakers passed a bill Monday that would prevent school districts from requiring students to wear masks, and Florida, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah have banned mask requirements.
“We’re seeing more and more states led by Republicans move in this direction,” McLennan said. “It’s a strategy for the midterm elections to try and get people to draw the line and make decisions about voting based on whether they think the government is overreacting.”
Democratic strongholds across the U.S. are ending mask mandates ahead of the midterms, understanding the political damage that could be done by them, according to the New York Times. Leaders in Mecklenburg County — which voted for President Joe Biden by a 35-percentage point margin — are considering repealing a countywide mask mandate.
As of Tuesday, a majority of the country was experiencing “high levels” of community transmission, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While coronavirus cases have been steadily declining since mid-January in North Carolina, COVID-related deaths have been increasing. Last Wednesday, North Carolina reported a near-record high daily death count at 157. The most number of new COVID-19 deaths reported in one day has been 169 in February 2021.
WRAL Statehouse Reporter Travis Fain contributed to this article.