On November 23, 2020, Gov. Roy Cooper signed N.C. Executive Order 180, mandating masks for North Carolinians. Gov. Cooper was able to mandate masks because of the Emergency Powers Act, which grants the state’s chief executive the authority to do so under the N.C. State Constitution.

Months later, on April 28, 2021, Gov. Cooper signed an Executive Order outlining safety measures for the month of May. Executive Order No. 209 took effect April 30 and is set to expire June 1. Under the new Executive Order, masks are still required indoors but are no longer mandated outdoors. Masks are still strongly recommended outdoors by NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) in crowded areas and higher risk settings where social distancing is difficult.

According to the NCDHHS, masks are still required indoors in all public and non-public schools. Adults (workers, teachers, guests, other adults) and children age five years and older at public and non-public schools in North Carolina are required to wear a face covering when indoors at all times unless an individual has a mask waiver. For more information on school guidance please refer to StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit.

As more North Carolinians get vaccinated and adhere to safety protocols over the course of the next month, the state anticipates lifting more restrictions on June 1.

Through our work with the Iredell County Health Department and the ABC Science Collaborative, we were able to be among the first public schools in North Carolina to return to school for face-to-face learning. We have been aggressive in exploring safety protocols that would allow us to get students back into our school buildings. Believe me, when we know it is safe to unmask students, we’ll be the first to let you know. However, we rely on our relationships with the Health Department and others in the healthcare profession to guide us as to what is safe for our school buildings.

We very much appreciate the collaboration of the Iredell County Health Department, our local hospitals, NCHHS and the ABC Science Collaborative. We’ve learned so much over the last 14 months, and we are committed to keeping our kids safe, educating them, focusing on their mental health, and getting students back into a routine.

Iredell-Statesville Schools was one of the first districts in NC to sign on with the ABC Science Collaborative and one of a few districts to return to face-to-face learning for K-5 in early October 2020. The goal of establishing that relationship was based on the desire of the I-SS Board of Education to get students back to school as soon as possible. When surrounding districts were still learning 100 percent remotely, I-SS was working to establish safety protocols that would set the tone for other school districts across the state. Through work with 11 districts across NC, the ABC Science Collaborative was able to advocate for sixth through twelfth grade to return to the classroom.

Currently, I-SS is partnering with the ABC Science Collaborative to collect data that shows the need to reduce quarantine time for students. If we can provide data to support a reduction to the social distancing protocols, our district will again lead the way for other districts in NC to get students back into the classroom.

Please know that our faculty and staff would love to be able to get rid of face masks. We don’t like wearing them anymore than the next person. However, our No. 1 priority this year has been to get students back into the classroom safely. If wearing a mask is what will keep everyone safe and in school, we’ll wear a mask.

Dr. Jeff James is the superintendent of Iredell-Statesville Schools.

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