About half of North Carolina's 115 school districts initially voted to make face masks optional in the classroom. But as the spread of the delta variant gets worse, about 20 school boards have voted to reverse that decision.

The governor and state public health officials released guidance last month saying all students, teachers and staff should be required to wear masks inside school buildings. But they left it up to each school district to decide on mask mandates.

"There’s more buy-in and better enforcement when these decisions are at a local level," Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday.

"Requiring masks in schools will help keep students learning in the classroom while helping to keep COVID out," he said. "We want schools to educate children, not become hotspots for the virus, and I commend the school leaders who are looking out for the health of their students and staff."

Cooper and state public health leaders sent letters recently to school boards that did not adopt the state standards on masks urging them to change their minds.

"As most K-12 schools prepare to open their doors next week for the fall semester, we have seen many North Carolina school districts step up to require masks and other safety protocols for their students and staff," the governor said.  

Debates over masks in schools have divided many communities. At school board meetigns around North Carolina, a common theme for board members to vote for masks has been quarantine rules. Students who are exposed and are not wearing masks could be out of school for two weeks while they quarantine.

In Gaston County, where the school board members voted to overturn their earlier decision, board vice chair Dot Cherry said, "We were elected to do what's best for the children and our system."

"I think that we are moving in the right direction to go to masks, and as this delta variant unfolds, hopefully it will reverse," she said after the board heard from public health officials.

After voting unanimously to make masks optional three weeks earlier, the Gaston County school board voted 6-3 this week to require face masks for students and staff.

Most traditional calendar schools in North Carolina start this week and next.