Lawmakers Pass ‘Free the Smiles Act’ As Governor Calls For End To Mask Mandates

State lawmakers today passed a bill allowing parents to “opt out” of school face covering requirements for their children, as Governor Cooper called on schools and local leaders to end mask mandates. Senate Bill 173, entitled “Free the Smiles Act,” is a revised version of legislation introduced early last year that was revived this week following a nationwide surge in states ending mask mandates. The bill, if ultimately passed into law, would supersede any local regulations or executive orders requiring face masks for students in schools, but would not affect the federal directive from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requiring masks on school buses. In addition to allowing parents to opt their students out of mask requirements, a bill
summary from legislative staff notes the bill would also do the following:

  • Prohibit children not wearing masks from being treated differently than children wearing masks;
  • Limit the liability of public school units (PSUs) when allowing parents to opt-out of face covering requirements, “unless the act or omission amounts to gross negligence, willful or wanton conduct, or intentional wrongdoing”; and
  • Repeal the requirement for monthly votes on face covering policies in PSUs for the current school year.

The bill was discussed earlier today in the House K-12 Education Committee, and was quickly passed in both chambers without amendments this afternoon, directly before Governor Cooper held a press conference calling for schools to end mask mandates. The Governor stated during the press conference, “I have concerns about the bill and believe it is unwise and irresponsible to let people pick and choose which public health rules to follow.” He continued, “I’ll look at it if they pass it, but I do
have concerns about it.”

Unlike the bill, Governor Cooper’s announcement encourages, but does not require schools to end mask requirements. The Governor noted the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) would be making further revisions to the StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit to reflect the new recommendations against mask mandates, effective March 7, 2022.

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