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School districts split on mask policies as academic year begins

COVID-19 case counts are rising and variants of the coronavirus are emerging as the 115 school districts across North Carolina embark on a new academic year, which means school boards have had plenty to consider when discussion their mask policies.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Beaufort County Schools is one of 54 North Carolina school districts that have made masks optional. Fifty-five districts have made masks mandatory; several of those districts originally voted to make masks optional, but revisited their decisions due to growing concerns about the pandemic.

Federal law requires masks on school buses. Individual districts can decide whether they want to require masks; some have tailored their policies to require students and staff of certain age groups or vaccination statuses to wear masks.

Several districts haven’t made a decision on masks yet but plan to do so in the near future. Pitt County Schools, for instance, plans to address its mask policy during a school board work session Monday, Aug. 16.

Here’s how other local school systems have approached their mask policies: Hyde County Schools is continuing to require masks in all school buildings; Tyrrell County Schools made masks optional for all students and staff; Washington County Schools is requiring all students and staff to wear masks; Martin County Schools will start the year with a mask requirement in place; Craven County Schools is requiring K-8 students and staff to wear masks, and recommending but not requiring that high school students and staff wear masks; and Pamlico County Schools made masks optional for students and staff.

On Tuesday, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services announced that the state had experienced the largest single-day jump in hospital ICU admissions since the beginning of the pandemic. Weekly COVID-19 hospitalizations among people ages 20-49 are at an all-time high.

Health officials on the local, state and national levels have expressed frustration with the fact that unvaccinated people are driving the surge in hospitalizations.

“These high-levels of COVID-related admissions jeopardize the ability of our hospitals to provide needed care in our communities,” said Kody H. Kinsley, chief deputy secretary for health at NCDHHS. “The vast majority of our COVID-19 hospitalizations are in unvaccinated people. This underscores the need for everyone to be vaccinated against the virus and use preventative measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.”