Faced with a “tripledemic” of respiratory illnesses, some schools are fighting back by once again turning to universal masking, a familiar—and sometimes controversial—mandate during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This winter, the convergence of COVID-19, the flu, and RSV, a virus that causes cold-like symptoms, is causing higher-than-normal staff and student absences and sometimes forcing schools to temporarily close.
After months and sometimes more than a year without mandatory masking, some schools have revisited the concept in an effort to keep students and teachers in the classroom.
“We know that masking works as a mitigation strategy and we’re in this season of illnesses, so it’s not really surprising to see it might be coming back in some places,” said Linda Mendonca, the president of the National Association of School Nurses.
An elementary school in Washington state reinstated its mask mandate this month after about one-third of students were absent with illnesses. New York City schools last week sent a message to its families urging—but not requiring—students and staff members to wear masks indoors as illnesses surge and strain local hospitals.
Schools in several states, including Michigan, Iowa, Maine, Texas, and Missouri, have closed some schools or temporarily switched to virtual classes due to high absentee rates from illness, according to Burbio, a company tracking school closures across the country.
The Philadelphia school district on Dec. 15 announced a 10-day mask mandate when students return from winter break in January. It’s intended to be a proactive measure to stifle the spread of illnesses following the extended break, during which many families travel or gather in larger groups.
Prior to the start of the school year, the district had developed a COVID-19 plan that specified in part that it would reinstitute an indoor mask mandate if the number of cases increased or if there was potential for cases to increase, said Kendra McDow, the district’s medical officer.
Since Thanksgiving, there has been an increase in COVID-19 cases reported, along with other illnesses, she said. That trend has historically been true after the winter break, as well.
Students and staff are encouraged to wear masks indoors now, but the requirement will kick in from Jan. 3-13, McDow said.
Masking turned political during the pandemic
Because the district had created and outlined a plan for the potential return of masks early, “nobody should have been surprised” when the district announced the plan this month, McDow said. Still, there is a range of opinions about the move.
In some places, mask mandates, particularly in schools, have become an intensely political and divisive topic. Those opposed argue that the masks are unnecessary or ineffective, or that they obstruct young students’ ability to develop their speech.
In Philadelphia, McDow said most people understand implementing the mask mandate is intended to keep the students and staff healthy, and to keep kids in school.
“I think the biggest thing for us is we know that learning in person is extremely important, so if we can reduce our cases as much as possible through the implementation of proven mitigation measures, it allows our staff or teachers to be healthy,” she said. “Our school staff should be healthy to continue to teach our students and it’s also very important for our students to remain healthy so that they can come to school and they’re ready to learn.”
Combatting ‘mask fatigue’
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear masks indoors if COVID-19 cases are high in their community.
But asking people to go back to masking after three years of on-again, off-again guidance can be challenging. Even people who complied before have gotten what Mendonca called “mask fatigue.” Districts generally face more pushback now than in 2020.
Previously, face-covering mandates often came from state health or education departments, and now trying to make the decisions piecemeal can seem less valid to the community, she said.
Making the decisions based on the local situation—such as the number of COVID-19 cases, how many students and teachers are out sick, the strain on neighborhood hospitals—makes sense. State agencies could also help by working with the local officials and supporting their decisions, Mendonca said.
She said there’s no easy solution. But district leaders can continue to remind the community about how masks can protect them.
“It just goes back to knowing that from a public health standpoint, masking is a mitigation strategy that works,” Mendonca said. “And so if you want to decrease transmission of the virus, or any virus, wearing a mask will certainly help.”