Scientists’ evolving understanding of COVID-19’s Delta variant, coupled with a flurry of conflicting state actions on masking and vaccinations, is pushing school leaders to confront once again how to keep staff and students safe as school begins.
In the spring, most school leaders had hoped that nearly all students could attend school this fall without masking thanks to the widespread availability of vaccines at that time. But the rise of a highly contagious variant has changed the calculus: Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suddenly reversed course and recommended that staff and students mask up indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
That comes even as drama at school board meetings reaches a fever pitch, some from parents who oppose mandatory school masking or are suspicious of vaccinations. And it comes as the contours of districts’ authority changes, with states like Florida taking steps to curb district and schools’ ability to require masks; Illinois mandating that they begin the year with masking; and still others mulling over different choices.
Here are five different ways districts are attempting to respond to the surge in COVID cases caused by the Delta variant.
Mandating mask-wearing or COVID testing, where permitted
There is still a good deal of confusion about to what extent vaccinated people can transmit the Delta variant, but it is absolutely clear that unvaccinated people are still at risk for becoming ill. Young children, though they appear to be less likely to catch COVID and less susceptible to severe reactions, can still pass on the virus to others.
That’s been reason enough for some districts to move forward with an indoor masking requirement this fall. Baltimore; Chicago; Philadelphia; Prince George’s County and Montgomery County, Md.; and Winston-Salem, N.C.; are among big-city districts that will start the school year off with mandatory masking.
Blanket masking requirements, however, may not be an option for school systems in states like Florida, whose governor, Rick DeSantis, signed a July 30 executive order that threatens to withhold funds from districts that violate what it calls parents’ “freedom to choose” on masking.
In contrast, mandatory masking is picking up steam again in Kansas districts, after a state judge in mid-July threw out a rule permitting parents and community members to challenge districts’ local masking policies.
Some districts, like New York City, are making weekly COVID testing a requirement for staff who choose not to be vaccinated.
The Los Angeles district plans to resume COVID testing of staff and students, whether vaccinated or not—even as some health experts say that asymptomatic testing hasn’t proven effective, and that the money could be better spent on other mitigation strategies.
Showing proof of COVID vaccinations
Outside of K-12, a handful of public agencies are now requiring top-line health employees to show proof of vaccination. The most high-profile of these is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, but other public health agencies in California have also moved to require similar vaccinations.
So far, it’s not yet clear whether public school districts will follow suit. For one thing, 13 states have passed legislation that would proscribe mandatory vaccinations, and a subset of those laws specifically mention schools, CNN reported.
But a board member in the Natchez-Adams district in Mississippi proposed the idea of requiring vaccinations for all of its staff. (The district’s attorney did not immediately return a request for comment.)
And just Monday, Denver issued a public health order that will require all municipal employees, including classroom teachers, to receive their second dose of an approved vaccine by Sept. 15.
In general, the issue of mandatory vaccinations becomes thornier with students: School districts are generally not permitted on their own to demand specific vaccinations for students—those rules are set in state law. And so far only one vaccine, Pfizer, has been approved for use in children aged 12 to 16.
Encouraging or offering incentives to be vaccinated
Districts in states that have prohibitions on face masking are using other methods to encourage higher vaccination among their staff. In short: money talks. Among the latest offerings:
Orange County, Fla., will offer a $200 bonus for a vaccination. The San Marcos, Texas, district will shell out $250. And some are willing to go even higher: Georgia’s Henry County schools is offering to pay staffers $1,000 for getting a vaccine or providing proof that they’ve been vaccinated.
Duval County, Fla., will require all staff to mask up for the first 30 days of the school year while it offers duty-free periods for staff to get vaccinated at some of its secondary school sites.
Ignoring the state prohibitions
School districts in Arizona cannot require masking, but at least one district in that state is bucking the order and returning to indoor masking for students, staff, and visitors. The Phoenix Union district, a high school district in that city, announced that it would revert back to its school-board policy requiring indoor masking on Aug 2, the state rule notwithstanding.
“In an effort to protect our staff, students, and community, [Phoenix Union] has a good faith belief that following guidance from the CDC and other health agencies regarding mitigation strategies is imperative,” the district said in an announcement.
A science teacher in the district has already challenged Phoenix Union’s masking policy in state court, according to the Associated Press.
Other districts could choose to defy state masking mandates—though as in Arizona, they’ll likely be flirting with penalties or lawsuits for doing so.
In Florida, some districts have backed down in the face of penalties, even as others appear to be playing a game of chicken with DeSantis.
The Broward County district, for instance, passed a policy last week to require student masking, but rolled it back just days later following DeSantis’ executive order. But Alachua County, on Aug. 3 passed a policy requiring students to mask up for the first two weeks of the school year. The district will require all staff, teachers, and visitors to wear masks.
Reinstating a remote-learning option
Though many districts had planned to give up on a remote or hybrid learning option after last year’s often lackluster offerings, some districts are now giving those plans a second thought.
Five districts in Texas, including both the Austin and the Round Rock districts, will restart their remote learning options in certain grade and subject combinations, the Austin American Statesman reported.
Are you a district leader with smart strategies for keeping students and staff safe? EdWeek wants to talk with you! Email firstname.lastname@example.org.