School & District Management

Masks or No Masks: School Leaders Say They Can’t Make Anyone Happy

By Stephen Sawchuk — April 29, 2021 11 min read
Second grader Ernesto Beltran Pastrana puts on his face mask while attending class during the first day of partial in-person instruction at Garfield Elementary School in Oakland, Calif. on March 30, 2021.

Several states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, and Texas have rolled back their masking requirements, putting superintendents and school boards once again on the hot seat on a question that, at least politically, feels un-winnable: Should they hold fast to their own masking protocols in schools?

With states abdicating their role in masking, districts are bearing the full brunt of opinions from resentful parents and fearful teachers. The availability of vaccines for adults and falling rates of the virus have added to the pressure. While public health officials continue to recommend masking, it’s far less clear at what point it will be safe to let guards down more generally.

Masking has long morphed from a purely health issue into a political quandary—the topic of cable-news programs and raucous board debates. The drama has resulted in angry parent rallies, interrupted school board sessions, and, in Kansas, formal hearings at which parents have sought to overturn local masking rules.

The latest fallout comes from Arizona, where Gov. Doug Ducey on April 19 rescinded an executive order from last year requiring all K-12 schools to require masks for anyone above the age of five.

The announcement came with little warning just a month before the end of the school year, leaving district leaders scrambling to decide whether to maintain, roll back, add, or alter their own directives.

“Arizona is a very ideologically diverse place, and there will be some rural districts in more conservative areas of the state that are like, it’s not worth it to keep masking policies. They’re so tired of fighting about this,” noted Chris Kotterman, the director of government relations for the Arizona School Boards Association. “The use of a mask here among people of a certain ideological stripe has come to signify more than infection control; it’s a political thing.”

District leaders in several other states have already found out the hard way that, as with school reopening plans, there is no answer that will please everyone. Some have kept their own mandates; others loosened up some of the details for outdoor activities and recess. Still others are simply allowing students and staff to decide on their own whether to mask up.

In the Bentonville, Ark., district, which voted to maintain masking requirements for staff and students through the end of the school year, the critique cut both ways, expressed in more than 700 e-mails from parents to school board members: from those who wanted masks dropped immediately, and those who want masking extended indefinitely.

“It’s one of those times as a school board member where you don’t make anyone happy,” said Eric White, the president of the school board. “Nobody said, ‘Great job, board!’”

School masking becomes political, illuminating the challenges of local control

Nearly all health experts agree that, along with hand-washing, masking is one of the cheapest and most effective mitigation strategies to prevent transmission of the virus.

But the rollout of effective vaccines has intensified calls to revise masking mandates in an increasing number of conservative states, even as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend the use of masks or face shields in K-12 settings. (The agency has, however, loosened up other recommendations related to social distancing in schools.) Some of the most recent oubreaks, in fact, are occurring among school-aged children.

Just this week, the CDC said that vaccinated adults could forgo masks in outside settings, but it did not specifically OK that for school contexts. No vaccine has yet been approved for children younger than 16.

For Republican governors especially, enforcing a statewide mask mandate at the height of the pandemic put them in a potentially shaky position with core constituents. Falling rates of COVID-19 transmission in many states have added to the pressure on them to retrench. In doing so, many have expounded on the theme of personal responsibility.

“I will continue to wear my mask when I’m around others and strongly encourage my fellow citizens to use good common sense and also practice personal responsibility,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said when she declined to extend the state’s masking mandate, which ended April 9.

In effect, the accelerating rollback of statewide masking mandates hasn’t made the topic any less political or controversial; it’s merely passed the buck down to local districts and municipalities to deal with. The unsurprising fallout can be seen in loud, angry commentary flooding districts’ Twitter threads and Facebook pages as they’ve announced their new policies, and in emotionally fraught board meetings.

“I want to know from each of you: When does the fear of physical illness outweigh the actual mental or physical illness or lack of connection in our kids?” one parent in Higley, Ariz. recently demanded of board members, tearfully describing how her kindergartener had yet to see her teacher’s face.

Even those parents who don’t hold dyed-in-the-wool opinions about masking are likely to be confused by all the shifting requirements, said Sara Dahill-Brown, an associate professor of political science at Wake Forest University, who studies the way the federal, state, and local levels of school governance interact and sometimes conflict.

“The way schools are governed, and power over them is shared, means it’s already difficult to identify who’s responsible for what, or where a particular policy comes from. All these conflicting narratives and guidelines and changing rules takes a problem that was already present and just kind of puts it on steroids,” she said.

Plus, she said, local governance makes sense when it’s about match and fit and tailoring to your community, but tends to work less well when it comes to issues of resources or making decisions for the common good.

“There’s clear science on the side of masking; it just doesn’t make sense for that to be such a localized decision,” she said.

For all that America’s far-flung school systems fetishize local control, some school leaders agree that, on masking, their jobs were easier when the state shouldered the burden of decisionmaking.

“It did give districts some ‘air cover’ because the choice is not ours at that point,” said White, the Arkansas school board member.

Even those leaders who are sticking to masking for now say they’d like more federal guidance about when it might be safe for kids to go unmasked during recess and outdoor activities and sports.

Part of what’s hampering the process of setting a path forward on masks, White said, is the rampant misinformation and competing narratives about masking that regularly appear on social media. Some in the community have referenced Dr. Anthony Fauci’s remark in the earliest days of the pandemic that masks weren’t indicated—even though he has consistently advocated for their use for more than year.

The ongoing discourse has made it harder for school administrators to advance a purely scientific and health-driven argument to keep masks.

A tale of four Arizona districts, and their masking decisions

Thus the rollbacks at the state level are causing districts to weigh a variety of factors: community will, local health guidance, and whatever their previous policies spelled out—or didn’t.

Four examples out of Arizona show how this can play out in different communities.

The J.O. Combs district, located southeast of the Phoenix area, never passed its own requirements after Gov. Ducey first established a statewide masking order in summer 2020. So, when he rescinded it, there was no fallback policy in the district, said Kayla Fulmer, the district’s director of marketing and communications.

By April 20, about three-quarters of both students and staff in the districts chose not to wear masks, she said. And in general the district wants to give parents choices, including about whether to attend school in person and whether to wear masks.

“In this community, that notion of choice is so important to them. They want the ability to determine what’s right for them, and we try our best to honor that choice,” she said.

The district has so far not seen any increased cases of COVID-19 in the school system since masking became optional, Fulmer said.

Which States Have Loosened Up Masking Requirements in Schools?

A growing number of states have lifted statewide masking requirements, effectively pushing down the decision about whether or not to require masking to local school districts. Here’s a rundown of some of the recent action:

  • Alabama: Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, allowed the state’s mask mandate to expire April 9, leaving it up to school districts to determine whether to continue them on their own or not.
  • Arizona: On April 19, Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, withdrew a previous executive order requiring masks or face coverings for anyone over the age of five in schools.
  • Arkansas: On March 31, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, lifted the statewide mask mandate, and on April 29 he signed legislation barring any government entity from requiring face shields.
  • Kansas: A new law signed March 24 by Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, made school districts the only authorities permitted to set school operational plans during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also allows parents, students, and staff to challenge those plans in a formal hearing before the school board. The legislature overruled Kelly’s subsequent executive order requiring statewide masking.
  • Texas: An executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, that took effect March 10 lifted a statewide mask mandate. The Texas Education Agency later clarified that school boards may choose whether or not to adhere to the agency’s masking guidelines.

Other states, including Indiana, Mississippi, and Florida, have eased up some COVID-19 requirements but for now still require masking in K-12 settings. (About 15 states never issued a mask mandate, so those decisions have long fallen to local businesses, governments, and schools.)

There appears to be a clear urban-rural split in many states. Among Arizona’s largest school systems, only the 63,000-student Mesa district has announced plans to phase out the use of masks; most Phoenix-area ones are keeping them, for now.

The Yuma elementary district, which serves about 8,000 students, has decided to keep its local masking requirements in place for now. Even young students have been generally good about keeping their masks on, said Superintendent James Sheldahl.

“Our board is very data-driven, very science-driven, and we’ve been able to say with good consistency that we’re making our decisions based on guidance from experts. So, just that overall consistency from the beginning has helped to reduce some of the criticism that comes from certain subsections of the community,” he said. “I think one thing parents don’t appreciate is when districts go back and forth. Even if they may not agree with a decision or some components of a decision, I think if you’re consistent in both communicating your decisionmaking process and following them, people will understand and respect that, for the most part.”

That is more challenging when district leaders and boards aren’t on the same page, as happened in the Higley, Ariz., district. There, the school district’s administrators recommended keeping coverings in place until May 31 and then testing out optional masking during this year’s summer school session. But the school board amended the recommendation and made masking optional beginning April 27.

“Recommendation and outcome do not always align, but we continue to work together to do what’s best for our community, while continuing to be kind, thoughtful, accepting and understanding in the process,” said Associate Superintendent Dawn Foley in an email.

And in the Vail, Ariz. district, a group of angry, mask-less parents barged into the school board session where masking was scheduled to be debated, resulting in a call to the police and a cancelled meeting.

A Kansas law permits challenges to masking—and has districts eyeing costs

Some Alabama districts have completely discarded masking rules since the state’s mandate ended April 9; others are citing a variety of reasons for keeping them.

“Some are saying they’ll go to the end of the year, which will get you through state testing; others kept them until the end of the April because of spring break travel,” said Ryan Collingsworth, the executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama.

Among the recent wave of state action, Kansas took a unique approach. Newly passed legislation there gives parents and students the power to challenge local districts’ pandemic-related plans in a quasi-judicial hearing before the school board—a development that, districts say, has in recent weeks meant challenges to masking policies.

The Valley Center school district north of Wichita was among the first handful of districts to face challenges to its masking policy, in two separate cases. In both instances the school board upheld the policy. But there were costs. About $10,000 in legal costs, to be specific.

That’s because the district had to consult its lawyers, because complainants can appeal the results of the hearing to a district court if they don’t like the results. And there’s the added cost of lost time.

“We’ve spent at least 80 hours on these two hearings—the preparing, the setting up, the aftermath, paperwork,” said Superintendent Cory Gibson, who said the district has relied on a community advisory panel’s recommendations in holding to masking for now. “We talk about local control and we have home rule. We want feedback, and we want people to continue to engage us, but not in this manner.”

It’s unclear how many such challenges have been made in the state. Some have been tinged with an element of schadenfreude; the Blue Valley district had to reschedule one challenge after its complainant refused to wear a mask during the proceedings.

As vaccinations tick up, superintendents worry about the fall

More districts will face similar issues as additional states loosen up their requirements—and possibly even legal challenges as the summer wears on.

In late April, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran sent a letter to districts requesting that districts make masking optional for the upcoming 2021-22 school year.

And in states that never passed a statewide mandate, the pressure is mounting. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee recently signed an order removing county mayors’ power to enforce masking, though school districts can still require face coverings. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster this week blasted school districts that have instituted their own requirements. In North Dakota, the state’s largest district, Bismarck, on April 26, rolled back its school masking requirements beginning in May. Its second-largest district, Fargo, is now under intense lobbying to follow suit.

The Bentonville, Ark. board’s decision was meant to build in some room to revise mask policies this summer, if local health metrics continued to improve. But as a testament to how rapidly state policy on masking is evolving, Gov. Asa Hutchinson this week signed legislation that prohibits any government body from requiring face coverings.

For schools, it won’t take effect before next school year. But it guarantees nevertheless that White, the school board president, and his colleagues will probably need to once again change course.

For her part, Dahill-Brown, the political scientist, wonders if by the beginning of the school year, so many people will be fatigued by grueling debates about schools’ pandemic policies that controversy about masking will have dialed down somewhat.

“Teachers are exhausted. School administrators have been beaten into a pulp,” she said. “I feel for everyone—or nearly everyone—in this context.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2021 edition of Education Week as Masks or No Masks: School Leaders Say They Can’t Make Anyone Happy

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