While the BA.5 variant of COVID-19—the most transmissible version of the virus to date—spreads quickly around the country, many school and district leaders plan to start the 2022-23 school year with fewer pandemic precautions in place.
Leaders cite the importance of restoring a sense of normalcy for students after three consecutive school years of interruptions and heightened vigilance.
Even some of the most historically cautious school systems, like Los Angeles Unified, plan to ease policies on things like testing and mask-wearing, saying the pandemic is entering an endemic phase that families will need to learn to live with.
Public health officials say that vaccines, boosters, and anti-virals have helped prevent severe illness for most people who contract the new variant.
But BA.5 is able to evade previous immunity, causing some people to become sick repeatedly, which could lead to further interruptions in staffing and attendance that have stymied schools since the start of the pandemic. And scientists are still researching the prevalence and effects of long COVID—cases in which some symptoms persist for extended time periods beyond when an individual initially contracts the virus.
“School leaders will do a combination of what the science tells them and what is politically possible,” said Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
School leaders should be prepared to protect students with health vulnerabilities and to pivot—putting protocols like periodic testing back in place if climbing rates of transmission make it difficult to keep schools open, Gronvall said.
A highly transmissible variant
Going into the new school year, many districts have dropped one of the most visible and contentious responses to the virus: mandatory universal masking.
As of Aug. 3, just seven of the nation’s 500 largest districts required or planned to require universal mask wearing at the start of the school year, according to the tracking company Burbio.
That’s down from 369 districts in October 2021, the earliest date in the tracker. In addition to those districts with universal requirements, seven school systems plan partial requirements which may apply to targeted groups like staff or may only be in effect when virus levels cross a certain threshold, Burbio reported.
“The goal is to be in person, face-to-face, as close to normal as possible,” said Morcease Beasley, the superintendent of the Clayton County, Ga., district, which started school Wednesday.
The district requires all adults and visitors to wear masks, but a new state law prevents such mandates for students. Beasley said precautions will help minimize interruptions, and his community has been cooperative.
“Staff are being very supportive, visitors are being very supportive, and many students, while it’s not required of them, are wearing them as well,” he said.
The shift away from mask requirements in many districts comes even as existing federal guidance suggests many students should cover their faces at school.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased its recommendations on masking in February, telling schools they no longer needed to require it if their community falls in a low or medium community level under metrics that rely on rates of illness and hospital capacity, rather than total numbers of COVID-19 cases.
The agency recommends universal masking in public settings, including schools, in areas with high community levels. It urges high-risk individuals to consider masking in areas with medium community levels.
At the time of that change in guidance, 37 percent of counties had high levels. By July 28, 46 percent of counties had high community levels under the metrics.
Still, many school and district administrators have little interest in putting mask rules back in place.
“My biggest concern for my students is not COVID,” said Jeff Bollinger, superintendent of the Mountain Valley school district in Saguache, Colo. “I’m more concerned with the social-emotional concerns that masking students causes. It’s not quantifiable, but it’s definitely discernable.”
In Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest school district, masks will be recommended but not required under new protocols announced Tuesday. The district also plans to end a universal mandatory testing program and requirements that students test negative before the first day of school, instead asking students to test if they are sick or in cases of potential outbreaks, the Los Angeles Times reported.
New York City schools, the nation’s largest district, plans to end a school-based testing program in the fall, Chalkbeat reported Wednesday, citing an anonymous source.
Shifting guidance and pandemic conditions
The CDC and other public agencies have focused much of their guidance on the BA.5 variant on individuals. While the agency recommends people mask up in certain areas, for example, it stops short of saying that schools should mandate universal masking in those communities.
Several media outlets, including CNN, reported Wednesday that the CDC plans to update its guidance for schools this month. The agency is expected to deemphasize regular school-based COVID-19 testing for screening purposes, CNN reported, and it is “expected to ease quarantine recommendations for people exposed to the virus and de-emphasize 6 feet of social distancing.”
But many schools have already abandoned such strategies, and many educational leaders said social distancing was difficult or impossible to begin with.
Shifting public health guidance has intensified pressure on district leaders throughout the pandemic, and they’ve sought to balance what’s practical and realistic with sometimes conflicting perceptions of risk within their own communities.
Sasha Pudelski, the advocacy director for AASA, the School Superintendents Association, wondered Wednesday whether new CDC guidance would have any practical effect for schools.
A CDC spokesperson did not confirm plans for new school guidance, saying only that the agency “is always evaluating our guidance as science changes and will update the public as it occurs.”
The spokesperson did not directly answer a question about whether schools in high community level areas should mandate masking.
“If your community level is listed as high, you should wear a mask in public indoor settings and practice other prevention strategies—like staying up to date on vaccines, testing, and ventilation,” she wrote in an email.
The national teachers’ unions, which have pushed for COVID-19 precautions in previous school years, have been less vocal about issues like masking as classes resume in many parts of the country. Neither the American Federation of Teachers nor the National Education Association had released a statement about rumored CDC guidance Thursday.
At the NEA’s July 5 convention, one member proposed that the union’s members call for “a national policy of mandatory masking and COVID-19 vaccines in schools,” but 84 percent of delegates voted against the proposal.
Keeping schools open and protecting the vulnerable
Advocates for students with disabilities, who are often at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, have pushed for universal school masking in the past to help preserve those students’ ability to safely go to school in person.
The U.S. Department of Education did not respond to questions this week about what direction it would give to schools as they enter a fourth school year affected by the virus. The agency investigated states that prohibited local mask mandates last year for potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
In March, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told schools they may have to make special considerations to preserve educational access for at-risk students.
That may mean the school provides higher-risk students with high-quality masks, like N95s, that can provide extra protection to the wearer, even if those around them have uncovered faces. It might also mean schools agree to extra precautions, like sanitizing and masking, in classrooms of higher-risk students, Cardona said at the time.
Hawaii, the only state that maintained a universal mask mandate at the end of the 2021-22 school year, recently dropped that requirement.
Districts in 11 states faced bans on mask requirements at the end of last school year, according to an Education Week analysis, and many of those bans remain in effect.
In July, a federal appeals court said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, can keep a ban on local mask mandates in place while the court considers a challenge brought by parents of students with disabilities.
Second-guessing the virus is a surefire way to be wrong.
The National Parents Union, a group that advocates for parents’ involvement in school decision-making, urged school leaders this week to do more to prepare for the effects of contagious COVID-19 variants, and to engage families in their planning. The organization called on school leaders to improve ventilation, to hold classes outdoors when possible, and to minimize the potential for disruption.
“We cannot afford to lose any more time while we are still struggling to address the mental health crisis and education challenges our children are already facing,” President Keri Rodrigues said in a statement. “We expect our school leaders, superintendents, public health officials, state chiefs, governors, and policy makers to be proactive, prepared, and transparent around how we will handle this situation together moving forward—instead of reacting after the fact.”
Even as schools start the school year with fewer precautions, leaders should be prepared to shift strategies if they see outbreaks in their schools, if case rates climb, or if new variants prove more contagious or severe in children, said Gronvall, of Johns Hopkins.
That might mean reintroducing masks, even temporarily, or adding additional testing protocols, she said. And all leaders should focus on improving ventilation in school buildings and encouraging students and their families to get vaccinated and boosted, she said.
Precautions may be necessary not only to keep students safe, but to keep schools functioning, she said. Even if adults and students don’t require hospitalization from BA.5, repeated bouts of illness could make it even more difficult for principals to staff classrooms during a time of strained staffing.
“Let’s do everything we can to keep schools open,” Gronvall said. “This virus has been a constant reminder of just how much we don’t know. Second-guessing the virus is a surefire way to be wrong.”