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Gov. Cooper vetoes bill with student opt-out for masks

Governor Roy Cooper in a candid photo wearing his black face mask where he gives coronavirus briefings.
File Photo, Courtesy Governor Roy Cooper Twitter

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed legislation Thursday that would allow K-12 students — with their parents' permission — to opt out of mask-wearing mandates in school that a dwindling number of districts still have in place for COVID-19, questioning its efficacy for public health.

The legislation was approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly last week as the Democratic governor held a news conference encouraging boards of education to end broad indoor mask requirements amid falling COVID-19 transmission rates and rising vaccination numbers.

Republicans who advanced the bill said the opt-out measure was needed to affirm the rights of parents to make health-related decisions for their children and lamented the obstacles masks have caused for learning and social formation in classrooms.

But Cooper, in his veto message, said a 2021 law that left mask-mandate decisions to local school boards received bipartisan support, and “that is still the right course.”

“Passing laws for political purposes that encourage people to pick and choose which health rules they want to follow is dangerous and could tie the hands of public health officials in the future,” he added.

It was not immediately clear whether Republicans in charge of the legislation would try to override the veto. The Senate and House had approved the measure with slight veto-proof margins, with help from a handful of Democrats.

Statements about the veto by House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate education committee chairwoman Deanna Ballard did not specifically mention an override attempt.

“Actions speak louder than words, and the governor should do more than ‘encourage’ schools to lift their mask mandates,” said Moore, a Cleveland County Republican. "Return this decision back to parents.”

The issue is becoming increasingly moot for now as the omicron variant has lost steam and Cooper made his appeal to local governments to end indoor mask requirements. At least 95 of the state's 115 school district s have now approved some mask-optional policy, according to the North Carolina School Boards Association. Masks are still required on school buses, in keeping with federal rules.

The Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg school boards voted separately this week to adopt optional masking starting March 7 — the date that new K-12 school guidelines from Cooper administration health officials encouraging the end of mandates take effect.

The vetoed measure also would have made clear that unmasked students can’t be treated differently than those with face coverings. And monthly school board votes on face mask policies required through the 2021 law also would have been repealed.

The legislature has not overridden a Cooper veto since December 2018, when the GOP held veto-proof majorities. He has issued 43 vetoes since early 2019, according to General Assembly data.

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