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

Vaccinated students and teachers don’t need to wear masks inside school buildings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

The CDC recommends, however, that students and drivers continue to wear masks on school buses. Social distancing of at least three feet and mask-wearing in classrooms are recommended for unvaccinated students and staff to reduce transmission risks.

“Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic,” the CDC said. “Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.”

State health officials report that people who were not fully vaccinated accounted for 99.2 percent of COVID-19 cases, 98.7 percent of COVID-19 related hospitalizations, and 98.9 percent of COVID-19 deaths between May 6 and June 29.

The CDC’s announcement comes as North Carolina’s year-round students and teachers return to classrooms for in-person instruction this week.

Masks are currently required in North Carolina’s schools. The state is one of 10 that require masks in schools, according to Forbes.

The new CDC guidance mostly impacts students and teachers in middle schools and high schools. Students aged 12 years and older are eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines. Most students in elementary schools aren’t old enough for the vaccines.

State health officials announced Thursday that the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) is working on revisions to its StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12), which outlines steps school districts must take to minimize the spread of COVID.

The revised guidance could be released as soon as the week of July 19, Susan Perry-Manning, deputy secretary of NCDHHS, said during this week’s State Board of Education meeting.

Perry-Manning said the new “thinned down” Toolkit will have fewer recommendations and provide for more “local flexibility.”

Community rates of transmission and the availability of vaccines will play a major role in revising the Toolkit, Perry-Manning said.

“There was a time when we had very restricted access to vaccines but that’s now longer the case,” she said. “We know now that they are very effective for people 12 years and older, and that includes with the Delta variant.”

The new CDC guidance and a recent report from the ABC Science Collaborative that said wearing a mask continues to be the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools will be considered during the Toolkit revisions, Perry-Manning said.

The Science Collaborative is a partnership of Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. It was created to help school districts develop best practices to address the coronavirus pandemic.

“We do want to let go of interventions that have not been found to be as effective and really focus on those things that are most effective,” Perry-Manning said.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are considering a bill to give school boards the exclusive authority to determine whether students must wear face masks in the upcoming school year.

As Policy Watch previously reported, Senate Bill 173, called the “Free the Smiles Act,” would strip Governor Roy Cooper of the authority to issue statewide mask mandates for schools, leaving him with the ability to do so only for individual schools during a state of emergency.

The House has approved the bill, but it was rejected by the Senate. A compromise bill is expected.

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