School & District Management

School Mask Mandates and the New COVID Variant: What to Watch

By Evie Blad — April 13, 2022 6 min read
Student teacher Olivia Vazquez, standing, left, speaks with a student at the Eliza B. Kirkbride School in Philadelphia on Oct. 20, 2021.
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Philadelphia’s announced return to school masking requirements this week is a rare move at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, as the vast majority of U.S. school districts now do not require masks.

The city cited growing case rates linked to the more-contagious BA.2 variant of COVID-19. Federal officials have urged calm about that strain, which now makes up the majority of U.S. cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is continuing to monitor the effects of the variant on health-care capacity and the potential for severe illness, the agency said Wednesday.

Just 3 percent of students attended a school that required masks on April 11, according to the most recent update of a national tracker of district policies maintained by the American Enterprise Institute.

If they follow federal guidance, education and health officials around the country are unlikely to restore school-mask rules unless rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations climb dramatically.

And, in some states, laws and executive orders prohibit local mask requirements.

Here’s what you need to know.

Why federal officials don’t recommend masks in most schools

Despite Philadelphia’s headline-making policy change, the CDC’s recommendations say the vast majority of U.S. schools do not need to set universal mask requirements.

The agency announced new metrics Feb. 25 that determine a community’s risk level based on rates of illness and hospital capacity, rather than total numbers of COVID-19 cases. Under those measures, just 19 counties are in high risk communities , where the CDC recommends all students and adults wear masks in schools. Six of those counties are clustered in South Dakota and three are clustered in New York.

Nearly 96 percent of counties are in low risk communities, and the rest are at medium levels. In both of those categories, the agency does not call for mask requirements but says individuals at higher risk for severe illness should consult with their physician about precautions.

When the agency announced those changes, some parents of students with disabilities expressed alarm. And some political pundits questioned the timing of the announcement, which came shortly before President Joe Biden lauded his administration’s progress in his State of the Union address.

The U.S. Department of Education has stressed that schools in low or medium community risk levels may still require classes or clusters of students to mask to help safeguard higher-risk classmates, saying such precautions are a disability rights issue.

Why one major city restored school mask requirements

Philadelphia city officials cited local metrics Monday when they announced a return to indoor mask requirements in public places and schools starting April 18.

The change will have little immediate effect for Philadelphia students. The district already planned to require masks April 18-22 to help slow any potential upticks in transmission after students return from spring break.

Those local metrics differ from the CDC’s community levels, under which Philadelphia is classified as a “low"-level community where masks are not recommended by federal officials.

Still, local officials opted to act, citing the speed at which virus cases are climbing in the city.

“As of today, April 11, Philadelphia is averaging 142 new cases of COVID-19 each day. This number is more than 50% higher than the 84 average new cases that was reported ten days ago, on April 1,” the city’s health department said in a news release. “This means that not only are cases getting higher, they’re going up more quickly than the Health Department feels is safe.”

Philadelphia’s mask requirement, which was previously lifted in early March, will lapse again when that rate of growth slows, officials said.

Local decisions about masking in schools

Asked about Philadelphia’s decision, Biden administration officials stressed the importance of local decisionmaking.

“These are decisions that should always be made on a local level, so I liked that feature of what Philadelphia is doing,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the newly appointed White House coronavirus response coordinator, told NPR Tuesday. "[These decisions] should be driven, really, by the realities on the ground.”

Even as COVID-19 cases have risen slightly in recent weeks, Jha said the country is “in a really good place” with the pandemic, citing low hospitalizations.

When they announced changes in federal mask recommendations in February, federal officials said schools and communities could always put requirements back in place if conditions warranted.

But school and district leaders have been at the center of divisive community debates over precautions for two years, and it may be politically difficult to put those measures back into place.

In addition, many states have moved to limit districts’ ability to require masks, policies that have been the subject of ongoing lawsuits in some areas.

According to an Education Week tracker:

  • Five states have bans in effect that prevent school districts from setting universal mask mandates.
  • Six additional states have such bans, but they have been blocked, suspended, or are not being enforced.
  • One state, Hawaii, requires masks to be worn in schools, down from a high of 18 states and the District of Columbia earlier this school year.

Monitoring changing pandemic conditions

The growth of the BA.2 variant—along with climbing case counts in Northeastern states and in other countries—have caused some advocacy groups for COVID-19 survivors to question whether public officials have changed course too quickly on virus prevention.

Nationwide daily confirmed cases rose from 25,000 per day to more than 30,000 per day in recent weeks. Public health officials have cautioned those figures likely undercount cases detected through at-home rapid tests, which aren’t tracked as carefully as those administered by health-care providers.

Even as they’ve called for additional federal funding to prepare for possible future variants, Biden administration health officials have said the country has made great progress in the pandemic.

Citing lower hospitalization rates, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has not called for the return of universal school mask recommendations.

While BA.2 is more contagious than earlier variants, there is no evidence it “results in more severe disease,” Walensky said at an April 5 press briefing.

The CDC hasn’t changed all of its pandemic policies. Citing continued monitoring of the BA.2 variant, the agency said Wednesday it would continue to require masks on public transportation.

On April 5, Walensky stressed the importance of local decision making.

“As we move forward, we encourage local jurisdictions to closely monitor their own COVID-19 community levels and to follow additional metrics that are—that they may have available as leading indicators of disease, for example, wastewater and syndromic surveillance,” she said.

But there is some evidence to suggest that the communities at the highest risk are not the ones taking precautions. All of the 3 percent of students who attended schools with mask requirements in the most recent AEI data lived in communities classified as low risk by the CDC, the think tank’s analysis found.

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