NCDHHS school guidance encourages vaccines, masking to keep students in the classroom

Published 2:40 pm Friday, January 7, 2022

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With COVID-19 cases reaching pandemic highs, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services urges K-12 schools to promote vaccination and boosters for students and staff and require students and staff wear masks indoors to keep students in the classroom and limit the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

“Research and lived experience in this pandemic have shown it is essential we do everything we can to safely keep our students in the classroom,” said NCDHHS Chief Deputy Secretary Susan Gale Perry. “In-person learning is more than academics, it’s also children interacting with their peers, getting healthy meals and accessing critical support services.”

Requiring masks in schools reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently published an updated review of scientific data that continues to show the benefits of mask wearing in reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The updated review included a study of the effectiveness of masking in 70 K-12 schools during the 2020-21 school year, which showed secondary transmission rates were significantly lower for interactions between individuals wearing masks.

Excluding a student or staff member from school following a COVID-19 exposure should be a last resort. NCDHHS has provided several tools to support schools in achieving this goal. A K-12 student or staff member who has been in close contact with someone confirmed to have COVID-19 — and has not themselves developed symptoms or tested positive — can still attend school if:

  • The person exposed has had their COVID-19 vaccinations. For adults, this includes boosters.
  • The person exposed has had a confirmed case of COVID-19 within the last 90 days.
  • The person exposed and the person with a confirmed case of COVID-19 were both properly wearing masks when the exposure occurred.

NCDHHS is adding another tool to help keep students in the classroom. Recent data released by the ABC Science Collaborative showed that Test-to-Stay can be an effective strategy for further reducing absences and lowering the risk of further transmission of COVID-19 in schools where masks are required. NCDHHS has incorporated these findings into the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit.

With the addition of a Test-to-Stay option, the list of scenarios for remaining in the classroom is expanded to include to unmasked exposures (e.g., when students are eating lunch). This Test-to-Stay option only applies to K-12 school settings that require masks, which data has shown limits the risk of transmission. As part of Test-to-Stay, the person who was exposed to COVID-19 should:

  • Get tested the day they are notified of an exposure.
  • Get tested again five days after the exposure (or as close to five days as possible).
  • Wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure.
  • Except for attending school, stay home and avoid others.

“Protecting our students and staff requires layers of protection to stop the spread of COVID-19,” said State Health Director and NCDHHS Chief Medical Officer Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, M.D. “In addition to vaccines and masks, Test-to-Stay is another proven tool that can help minimize the spread of COVID-19 while also maximizing time in the classroom.”

School districts, charter schools and private schools can request testing kits and other testing support from NCDHHS as part of the StrongSchoolsNC K-12 COVID-19 Testing Program. Additionally, public schools can request funding to hire additional school nursing support staff for school testing and other school-based health services.

Students, staff and families are reminded to take precautions to protect themselves and their communities by getting vaccinated (and boosted as soon as eligible), wearing a well-fitting mask and getting tested for COVID-19 if they believe they may have been exposed or are experiencing symptoms.

Find out how to book an appointment in advance for your vaccine or booster shot at (English) or (Spanish).