This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch.

Gov. Roy Cooper and state health officials want school boards that have made face masks optional to change course.

In a letter Friday, Cooper made an “urgent request” to the school boards to follow the guidance in the North Carolina Strong SchoolsNCToolkit, which recommends students and staff wear masks.

“The science is clear that children learn better when they attend school in person and the science is also clear that masks reduce COVID infections so we can keep them there,” Cooper said in a statement Friday. “The Delta variant is moving fast and I strongly urge school leaders who have made masks optional to reconsider and make them mandatory.”

Read the letter here.

The News & Observer reports that as many as 52 of the state’s 115 school districts have made masks optional. Most of those districts are in small, rural communities with low COVID-19 vaccination rates.

Districts that have adopted mask mandates have faced pushback from some parents and others who contend masks interfere with the educational process and, falsely, that they are not effective in protecting students and teachers from COVID-19.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, and Betsey Tilson, the state health director, also signed the letter addressed to school board chairs. The letter comes as most of the state’s 1.5 million schoolchildren prepare to return to classrooms on Aug. 23.

“The highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly through North Carolina,” Tilson said. “A layered approach to prevention, including universal masking, helps protect the health and well-being of students and staff and helps keep everyone in school – teaching, learning, and thriving.”

The letter reminds districts that the Delta variant of COVID-19 is spreading rapidly. Hospitalizations have more than doubled over the past two weeks, cases have increased by more than 50% in seven days and the number of people going to the emergency department with COVID-like symptoms is rising, the letter said.

It also warns district leaders about the increase in rates of infection in children.

“While it is still unclear if the Delta variant causes more severe illness in children than prior variants, we are seeing increasing hospitalizations for pediatric patients,” the letter said. “In addition, we are still learning more about the risk of long-term complications in children.”

Children under 12 are not eligible for the vaccine and the percentage of children 12-18 who have taken the vaccine remains low.

“Vaccines remain our best weapon to fight the pandemic, and we ask that you find ways to encourage your staff and eligible students to get vaccinated,” the letter said. “Many of our counties lag the state and nation on vaccine uptake.”

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