Suburban, rural schools make masks optional; urban counties keep mandates

By Andrew Dunn

Raleigh, NC – Given the freedom to choose whether to mandate masks for students, school boards across the state have begun voting to make face coverings optional for the coming school year.

More than two dozen districts took votes over the past week on mask policies, with decisions splitting largely based on geography. Suburban and rural school districts have tended to vote to make masks optional. Their larger, urban counterparts are generally voting to make them mandatory for all K-12 students and staff.

The decisions are a response to new guidance from Gov. Roy Cooper.

Cooper, a Democrat, has used the heavy hand of executive power to mandate restrictions on North Carolina over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. At a news conference Thursday, July 29, he strongly recommended that all school districts require K-12 students and staff to wear masks in the classroom. 

But with vaccines now widely available, he has stopped short of making that a requirement — instead, saying he was focusing on getting more people vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Look, we know that the landscape has changed,” Cooper said in response to a question asking why he did not make masks mandatory in schools statewide. “Back when we were doing all the statewide restrictions and mandating, we really did not have vaccines in place. Now vaccines are everywhere. This is where we need to concentrate.”

In the past week, 19 school districts have voted to make masks optional, leaving decisions up to parents, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Education NC. All of them are in suburban or rural areas.

“I’m so grateful that we finally get a choice again,” said Laura Blackwell, a Cabarrus County school board member, at a meeting Monday, during which the board voted to make masks optional. 

“I’m going to stay where I’ve stood through this entire situation that the children have been under. They have been put through the wringer so many times. … And that being said, I absolutely think it should be a parent’s choice whether or not you want to mask your children.”

Meanwhile, urban school districts have overwhelmingly voted to make masks mandatory for the upcoming school year.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools voted Friday to require them for all students and staff, joining Cumberland, Guilford, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth. Durham has left a mask mandate in place. Wake County, home to the state’s largest school district, has yet to decide.

“We have to err on the side of caution for all the children. We don’t know what can happen,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board member Lenora Shipp, before the board voted 8-1 to require masks. “It is important that we do all we can to protect all children.”

Among rural counties, only Anson, Gates, Hertford, and Jackson have voted to make masks mandatory, as well as Elkin City Schools. 

Cooper and many school districts have left the door open to revising their decisions if conditions change. Case counts have risen significantly in recent weeks amid the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19. Nearly all of the cases are among people who are unvaccinated against the virus. The Cooper administration is also lobbying school districts to move to mask mandates.

“I’m going to ask these local school boards who have voted, some a few weeks ago, to make masks optional, to look at this again,” Cooper said Thursday. “Look at where the numbers are. Look at where the numbers are in your county and think about the danger that students could face.”

But since most of the larger districts are choosing mask mandates, Cooper said he believes most students will be wearing them when school resumes. 

“I think at the end of the day, the majority of students will be covered by what we’re doing here,” he said.

Masks, starting Monday, will be required in Wake County government buildings, regardless of vaccination status. The Wake County Public School System, however, has yet to decide on whether to require masks.

School district decisions on masks


BeaufortCabarrusCaldwellCarteretCatawbaClayClevelandClinton CityGastonHarnettHaywoodIredellLincolnMadisonMooresville Graded School DistrictPenderRandolphRowan-SalisburySampsonStokesUnionWatauga


AnsonCharlotte-MecklenburgCumberlandDurhamElkin CityGatesGuilfordHertfordJacksonWinston-Salem/Forsyth

Source: Education NC

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