North Carolina health officials and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday announced that they will eliminate the statewide mask mandate and ease masking requirements in schools.

The new recommendations urge K-8 schools to require masks for students and staff while they are indoors but allows fully vaccinated high school students and staff to be unmasked. The mask mandate expires at 5 p.m. on July 30, which is the same time the updated school reopening guidance takes effect.

North Carolina’s top public health official, Dr. Mandy Cohen, said with only 24% of North Carolinians age 12-17 vaccinated and children under age 12 still unable to receive the vaccine, the state still has “a long way to go.”

At the same time, however, “We want to show that when you do get vaccinated, you can take off your mask,” Cohen said. “We hope that will serve as an additional incentive for high school students to get vaccinated.”

Lee County Schools superintendent Andy Bryan said district staff are beginning to review the changes to state guidance and “will provide an update soon on changes to our plans and protocols.”

He added that, “current protocols for summer school and Tramway Elementary School remain in place.”

Cooper and Cohen repeatedly declined to offer specifics on how they’d enforce the recommendations and crack down on districts that move to let all students return to the classroom without a face covering.

While parents in Wake County have been lobbying the school district to allow children to return to classrooms unmasked, the community in Lee County has been quieter. Bryan has repeatedly said the district’s goal is to bring back all students in-person “as safely as possible.” Current in-person students continue to wear masks regardless of vaccination status.

The North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s largest lobbying group representing teachers, called the governor’s decision to eliminate the statewide mask mandate “very poorly timed.” It added that the decision “flies in the face of recommendations” from federal health officials.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been on the rise in North Carolina amid the spread of the more lethal delta variant. Cohen said 94% of new cases and hospitalizations in the state were among unvaccinated individuals.

Making matters worse is the fact that fewer and fewer North Carolinians are coming in for a COVID-19 vaccine. Cohen said just 24% of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 are fully vaccinated. Of the North Carolina residents 12 or older who are eligible for a shot, 54% are fully vaccinated, according to state data.

Even so, a group of researchers released a report last month showing minimal transmission within North Carolina schools.

Throughout Wednesday’s news conference, Cooper and Cohen found themselves trying to strike a balance between communicating the seriousness of the new variant and the need to entities to implement their own masking policies.

“We are entering a new phase of this pandemic,” Cooper said. “We’ve gotten a lot of people vaccinated.”

Cooper defended his decision to end the statewide mask mandate and said he’s spoken with several governors who have already done so. He said North Carolina is working to “turn the final corner of this disease” by boosting vaccinations.

In the last two weeks, cases have more than tripled and hospitalizations have gone up over 69%. Asked what inning of the ballgame North Carolina is in at this stage of the pandemic, Cooper replied, “We’d have to sit down and study that issue.”

Reporter Jasmine Gallup of The Sanford Herald contributed to this report.