North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed on Feb. 24 Senate Bill 173—the Free the Smiles Act—which would have given parents discernment on masking their children in K-12 public school.
The decision comes a week after he encouraged local school boards to lift their mask mandates; however, Cooper said he wants the school boards to retain the authority to mandate masks in public schools if they choose.
“I have encouraged local boards to lift mask mandates and they are doing it across the state with the advice of health officials who see that COVID metrics are declining, and vaccinations are increasing,” Cooper, a Democrat, said in a press release. “The bipartisan law the legislature passed and I signed last year allows local boards to make these decisions for their own communities 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.”
The bill passed in the Senate by a vote of 28–17, with two Democrats voting in favor and no Republicans voting against the bill.
In a Feb. 17 media briefing before the veto when he recommended school boards lift the mandate, Cooper said some of the General Assembly “are very frantic” about passing the Free the Smiles Act.
“From what I know about it, I have concerns that it is unwise and irresponsible,” Cooper said. “Are we going to let people pick and choose which public health rules they are going to follow?”
School Districts Shift to Optional
Currently, out of the 115 school districts in North Carolina, 96 have gone mask optional, while 17 have remained mask required.
Local governments across North Carolina have lifted their mask mandates, with school boards following their lead.
Some parents have continued to speak out against mandates at local meetings, such as Liz Stankevich, who spoke at a contentious Mecklenburg County Commissioner meeting in February.
“Unfortunately, it has been our children who have paid the heaviest price for the governor’s endless state of emergency and ongoing mandates and restrictions,” she said.
In November 2021, Cooper vetoed a measure proposing to restore checks and balances to his executive powers that were extended amid the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic.
Cooper had declared a state of emergency in March 2020.
As the mother of three boys, Stankevich said she could talk “endlessly” about the negative social, mental, and academic impacts the mask mandates in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system have had on them.
“But instead, I’m going to choose to talk to you about the reality of COVID-19 today,” she said. “Today, Feb. 16, 2022, we are at a dramatically different spot than we were at two years ago. So, what have we learned in two years? What are the facts?”
Students are the lowest risk population for COVID-19, she said.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, she said, children have represented 0 to .2 percent of all COVID-19-related deaths.
“In other words, a total of 803 American children have died in the past two years from COVID-19,” she said. “This is significantly less than the number of total deaths from both the flu and RSV in a typical pre-pandemic year,” she said.
She said there continues to be very poor quality data on community masking, with cloth masks having shown to be ineffective in providing “even the smallest amount of protection from Omicron,” she said, which she called “the most dominant COVID-19 variant,” adding that most children only wear cloth masks.
There are also parents such as Stacy Staggs, who spoke in the Mecklenburg County Commissioner meeting expressing concern for those who are immunocompromised, such as her own children, and stating that minority communities would be hurt as well.
“I want you all to consider who you’re helping, and who you’re hurting. Lifting the mask mandate adds risk and thus hurts children. It also hurts black and brown bodies in our community” she said.
On Feb. 25, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its mask guidance to say now nearly three-quarters of Americans don’t need to wear masks because they live in areas with low or medium community risks from COVID-19.
‘Health Decisions Belong to the Parents’
State House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican, said he’s disappointed that Cooper would veto what Moore called a “common-sense bill.”
“All healthcare decisions for our students belong with their parents, not with politicians or bureaucrats,” Moore said. “Actions speak louder than words, and the governor should do more than ‘encourage’ schools to lift their mask mandates. Return this decision back to the parents.”
In a Feb. 17 statement after the House passed the Free the Smiles Act with a bipartisan vote of 76–42, Moore said that “young children have paid the heaviest price for ongoing mandates and restrictions that are simply not based on science or current data.”
In a Feb. 25 tweet after the veto, Moore said “this isn’t over,” and that he’s “looking forward to overriding” Cooper’s veto.
The bill can be returned to the House where three-fifths of the members can vote to override the veto. If the House votes to override, the bill is then sent to the Senate where three-fifths of the members can also vote to override before the bill can become law.