By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Hoke County Schools students and teachers won’t be required to wear masks indoors starting Thursday, after the school board voted to make masks optional.
The Hoke County school board held a special called meeting Tuesday night to revisit its policy requiring students and staff members to wear face coverings. School officials chose to reconsider the policy after mask guidance from state officials changed last week.
The board members voted unanimously to make masks optional for students and staff. They can still wear masks if they choose to do so.
Students and staff will still be required to wear masks on school transportation due to federal regulations. Students who attend Sandhills Community College campuses will need to adhere to the community college’s guidance for masks. Masks will still be provided to those individuals who want to wear one.
The board last voted two weeks ago to continue the school system’s mask requirement. Local school leaders at the time cited guidance from the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the reason for the decision. The guidelines recommended continuing masking due to the county’s high rate of positive COVID-19 tests to all tests administered.
However, last week North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Director Kody H. Kinsley announced upcoming changes to the state’s guidance on masks in schools. Cooper asked school boards across the state to consider ending their mask requirement policies.
“We are taking a positive step on mask requirements to help us move safely toward a more normal day-to-day life,” Cooper said. “It’s time to focus on getting our children a good education and improving our schools, no matter how you feel about masks.”
Cooper and Kinsley both pointed to improving virus metrics across the state as part of the reasoning for the change in guidance. Kinsley urged citizens to consider getting themselves and their children vaccinated against COVID-19 if they haven’t already.
“NCDHHS has always been committed to using the right tools at the right time to combat COVID-19 and chart a course for us all to get back to the people, experiences, and places we love,” he said in a statement. “At this time, the most effective tools are vaccines and boosters. Everyone five and older should get a COVID-19 vaccine and everyone 12 and older should get a booster as soon as they are eligible. It’s not too late to vaccinate.”
Hoke County Schools acknowledged the changed guidance by reconsidering its mask policy, according to an announcement about the meeting.
“The purpose of the meeting is to revisit the current Hoke County School’s Face Covering Policy in light of the Governor’s recommendation that school districts consider lifting their mandatory mask policy,” the announcement stated. “Because this is a special called meeting, there will be no opportunity for public comment.”
The county school system made masks mandatory for Hoke public school students when they returned to a full in-person education schedule in August 2021. As required by state law, the school board voted once a month thereafter to continue the policy. Three people spoke during the public comment period before the most recent vote at the February meeting, asking the board to reconsider the policy.
Although about 75 percent of all North Carolina public school districts had a mask requirement for students and staff at the end of January, many districts have since dropped the requirement. Several surrounding districts, including Cumberland and Moore County schools, were among those that ended their mask requirements last week.
As of the most recent data reported on Hoke County Schools’ COVID-19 dashboard, last week the school district had about 28 known cases of COVID-19 among all staff and students. That includes about 23 students with the virus, out of a student body population of around 9,000; and five staff members with the virus, out of about 1,500 staff members in total.
State officials clarified that masks will still be required in healthcare and long-term care facilities and on transportation like airplanes, due to the setting or because of federal regulations.