For many school leaders, the past two years have been pandemic Groundhog Day. With the recent return of mask mandates in some districts facing another onslaught of COVID-19 cases, that feeling isn’t going away anytime soon.
School districts near Boston, Pittsburgh, and Portland, Maine, for example, have made headlines in recent weeks for reinstating mask mandates as a spike in cases in some places around the country propel communities into the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s “high risk” category. The CDC recommends that people wear masks indoors and in public if they live in a red community.
“It feels horrible,” said John Provost, superintendent of Northampton Public Schools in Northampton, Mass., which reinstated a mask mandate on May 10. “This has been an incredibly taxing time for our staff, for our families, for all the support systems that are embedded within the district. I had sincerely hoped that we would never be at this place again.”
The Northampton school district had 64 cases among staff and students on May 4. By May 6, that number had risen to 139 in the district of around 2,700 students, Provost said.
The decision to require masks has become highly localized as nearly all states have dropped mask mandates for schools. But districts in some states won’t have that option even if cases rise.
Five states—Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Utah, and Virginia—ban mask mandates. Six other states—Arizona, Arkansas, Tennessee, Iowa, South Carolina, and Texas—have attempted mask mandate bans but had their attempts fully blocked or suspended by federal judges, or are not enforcing the mandates as they await court rulings, according to Education Week’s mask mandate tracker.
Hawaii is the only state with an ongoing mask mandate for schools, which is set to expire after the summer.
Rising case numbers behind return of mandates
After being mask optional for all of March and April, the Portland, Maine, school district brought back its mask mandate on May 12. Superintendent Xavier Botana said it was an easy decision after watching cases in the 6,500-student district climb from 26 at the start of April to 143 on May 8.
The rise in cases was coupled with the CDC’s decision to move Cumberland County, where Portland is located, from yellow, “medium risk,” territory into the red, “high risk,” classification. Cumberland is one of 137 U.S. counties labeled high risk, according to the CDC’s COVID-19 case tracker.
Botana pointed to CDC guidance about masking as the influence behind his decision.
Botana and Provost, in Northampton, hope the mask requirements will minimize disruptions to learning in their districts. Neither district has had to close schools in recent weeks, but both superintendents have been nervous as other school districts have closed doors.
The Brooklin School in Brooklin, Maine, moved to remote learning May 3 through May 6 after 30 percent of the school community was out with COVID-19 symptoms, according to a letter posted to the school’s website. In Northampton, one elementary school had 18 staff members out on May 13. Not all of those staff members were sick with the virus, but Provost believes the rise in cases has contributed to the staff absences.
“When you take the potential staff absenteeism that could be created if [the COVID-19] trend continues, it really, in our view, threatens the ability to guarantee continued school operations,” Provost said.
Even with the rising cases, the majority of schools nationwide remain mask optional. Kaweeda Adams, superintendent of the Albany City School District in New York, said the decision to return to masks would ultimately come down to guidance from the Albany County Department of Health.
The health department hadn’t given that guidance to the district as of Monday. Albany County was in the red zone on Friday, and the CDC labels the entire state of New York as either medium or high risk.
Although the masks are optional, the majority of students and staff wear them, Adams said. The district has other COVID mitigation measures in place, like widespread testing, quarantining, and hygiene lessons for students.
Adams said the 9,000-student district is averaging 13 cases a day.
“Right now, parents are concerned, even our students are concerned with the rising cases,” Adams said. “My message would be that we need to make sure that we’re following COVID protocols that have been established, that masks are encouraged.”
Preparing for pushback
Any school leader knows the drill by now. With changing COVID-19 policies comes opposition.
Both Provost and Botana have heard complaints about the decisions to return to masks. At a Northampton School Committee meeting on May 12, a handful of parents spoke against the mandate, challenging its legality, expressing concerns about equity for hard-of-hearing students, and asking, “Where is the end game here?”
Despite the vocal opposition, Provost and Botana are confident most of their communities support the return to masks. Both superintendents have developed a strategy of referencing data when talking to people who are against their decisions.
In letters sent to their school district communities, both superintendents cited advice and recommendations from health officials as a reason to return to masks.
“This is the way we’ve been trying to make decisions throughout the pandemic,” Botana said. “There’s nothing here that you wouldn’t expect from us.”
Neither Botana nor Provost wants to see the mask requirements remain for long. Both districts have their last day of school in mid-June, and the superintendents hope case numbers allow them to rescind mandates before summer.
“It’s one more curve in what’s been a super curvy road,” Botana said. “Hopefully, it’s the last one. I knock on wood as I’m saying that because I’ve said that many, many times.”