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Lawmakers say local boards should decide whether to require masks in schools


By Laura Leslie

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    RALEIGH, North Carolina (WRAL) — State lawmakers are debating whether the state should be able to require masks in schools.

Rep. David Willis, R-Union, stripped out language related to occupational therapists from Senate Bill 173 and replaced it with what he called the “Free the Smiles Act.”

The proposal would let individual school districts determine mask policies for students and staff in their schools during the upcoming school year.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s ongoing state of emergency order requires students to wear masks in schools at least through the end of July.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks for school children because most are too young to be vaccinated.

But Willis said data suggest children aren’t at high risk for serious illness from coronavirus.

“It’s to give our children the opportunity to return to normal [and] to remove the masks,” he told members of the House K-12 Education committee.

Local school boards know the needs of their communities better than the state, he said. Cooper would still be able to order masks in a particular school in an emergency under the proposal.

Democrats on the committee said the state should continue to follow CDC guidelines, adding that they worry that some school districts might ban masks outright, which could put high-risk students in danger.

Willis said that parents who want their children to continue wearing masks if a district drops a mask mandate would be given that flexibility.

He brought an unusual witness to testify in favor of his bill – his youngest son, Jackson Willis, a rising eighth-grader in Union County.

“We know that masks have impacted learning, but they have also impacted our mental health,” Jackson Willis said. “I can no longer receive reassurance from our teachers, not even a simple smile. I cannot see or hear my friends with their masks on.”

The younger Willis said the mask requirement violates the Declaration of Independence.

“As legislators, your power is given to you by the people, and we do not consent to giving you this power over us,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services said officials would prefer students keep their masks on this fall.

“We need to prioritize protecting the children who have either not yet had the chance to be vaccinated, or are not yet eligible due to being under 12 years old,” DHHS spokeswoman Catie Armstrong said in an email to WRAL News. “While our trends have been moving in the right direction, we are still seeing unvaccinated people hospitalized and dying from this virus.”

Senate Bill 173 passed the committee on a party-line vote and could be on the House floor by Wednesday.

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