Few COVID-19 protections have divided school districts as sharply as mask mandates. They’ve triggered screaming matches, violence, and death threats. But now, as K-12 schools trudge into a third pandemic-weary year, and case rates are falling, more districts are dropping mask requirements.
In just the past few weeks, more than 80 school districts in 19 states have ended or eased mask requirements for students or staff members.
These moves by no means comprise a tidal wave; they’re closer to a rivulet. Only nine of the 100 big districts tracked by the Center on Reinventing Public Education don’t require masks. State policy plays a role: In 17 states, districts are required to have K-12 mask mandates.
But in the past six weeks, two of those states—Massachusetts and Louisiana—have begun letting schools or districts make masks a choice under certain circumstances. Massachusetts, for example, lets middle and high schools ask for permission to make masks optional if 80 percent of staff and students are vaccinated.
In the other 34 states, districts can go mask-optional, because the state allows local choice, or because bans on mask mandates are prohibited or in legal limbo. In those places, dozens of districtwide mandates are disappearing or turning into school-by-school decisions.
Experts are divided on the wisdom of these moves. Some, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, caution against relaxing protections too soon.
“It’s premature to lift all your mask mandates,” said Dr. Tina Tan, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
Others argue that it’s time, at the very least, to begin discussing plans to lift mask requirements.
Joseph Allen, an associate professor of exposure assessment science, and director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, argues that lower case rates, and the impending availability of vaccines for all school-age groups suggests it’s time for a more nuanced approach to mask policy.
“We need to have these conversations,” he said. “We can’t keep mask mandates in place indefinitely as a solution to this pandemic.”
One-size-fits-all policies give way to carefully tailored policies, or none at all
Districts that are changing their mask policies are moving away from all-or-nothing approaches. They’re embracing flexibility, thresholds, and hyper-localization.
Those that drop mask requirements often state explicitly that they will reinstate them—and have done so—if case rates warrant. Some are setting clear thresholds, at the school or district level, at which masks will be required or optional. And many are basing their mask decisions on each school’s cases of infection or quarantine rates, rather than on county or district-level data.
The Barrow County schools in Winder, Ga., started the year Aug. 3 without a mask requirement, but within a few weeks, the Delta variant fueled so many cases that the district felt it had to take action. It began requiring masks in any school where 1 percent of students were in isolation with the virus.
So many schools quickly exceeded that threshold that the district stepped in again, this time with a temporary mask mandate effective Sept. 1, said Ken Greene, an assistant superintendent. Case rates began falling a few weeks later, but the district decided not to reassess until after an early-October break, when families might travel and risk contracting the virus. When a post-break check showed case rates were still low, Greene said, Barrow rescinded its mask mandate, effective Oct. 18.
The district made two additional changes. It maintained the mask mandate for staff, since it’s found that most staff members contract the virus from other adults. And it raised its school-level threshold: Now schools where 2.1 percent of students are isolating with COVID must require masks.
Barrow wanted to maintain its 1 percent threshold, Greene said, in part because only 18 percent of children 10 to 14, and 40 percent of those 15 to 19, have been vaccinated. But parent opposition to mask rules is intense.
“It felt like there might be a mutiny” if the district didn’t at least raise the school threshold, he said.
Clearly stating mask criteria can be helpful
Whatever metrics a district decides to use for its mask policies, having a framework that lays them out clearly is important, said Curt Dietrich, the superintendent in the North Penn schools, outside Philadelphia. Last summer, the district set separate masking thresholds for its elementary and secondary schools, based on county case rates and test positivity. The state later required all districts to enforce mask-wearing. But if those decisions revert to the local level, Dietrich says, North Penn is ready.
“People want to know, what is the plan?” he said. “They can see it, and feel assured we’re basing it on science and conversations with local health leaders. It gives them hope that somewhere on the horizon, if the numbers go down, and the state doesn’t require masks, there won’t be a need for masking.”
Dr. David Rubin, the director of the PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which has advised the White House COVID Task Force and school districts, said now that COVID-19 vaccines are available for all school-age groups, decisions about masking should revert to local districts. With the approval Nov. 2 of a vaccine for the youngest group, ages 5 to 11, mask-optional decisions “could move along fairly quickly” in January and February, he said.
“We can’t continue to wait for everyone to be vaccinated,” Rubin said. “There has to be an exit strategy.”
The CDC sees continued masking as a key part of that exit strategy. In a statement to Education Week, the agency reiterated previous guidance, which recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools. The CDC will “revisit” its school masking guidance as child-vaccination rates, transmission metrics, and other data evolve, agency spokeswoman Jasmine Reed said. But she noted that multi-layered protection is still warranted, since COVID transmission risk is still classified as “high” in nearly 75 percent of U.S. counties.
A big question mark: child vaccine uptake
Large swaths of the school-age population appear likely to remain unvaccinated. COVID-19 vaccines have been widely available for children 12 and older, but fewer than 55 percent are fully inoculated. A vaccine is now available for children 5 to 11, but polls show a large—and growing—segment of parents of children in that age group don’t plan to get their children inoculated.
In an October poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 30 parent of parents of children 5 to 11 said they would “definitely not” vaccinate their children, up from 24 percent in September. That margin grew even more among the parents of children 12 to 17: The percentage who said they would “definitely not” inoculate their children against COVID-19 rose from 21 percent in September to 31 percent in October.
The Clintondale schools in Clinton Township, Mich., recently found it couldn’t manage safely without a mask requirement. On Oct. 18, the same day the Barrow County schools in Georgia dropped its mask mandate, Clintondale added one. It had begun school Sept. 7 with masks optional.
“We really felt we were on the back end of COVID before school started,” said Superintendent Rodriguez Broadnax.
But by the third week of school, the Delta variant led the district to quarantine all 114 students in the 8th grade after a teacher contracted the virus. Breakthrough cases started cropping up among vaccinated teachers. By mid-October, the board unanimously enacted a temporary mask mandate, fearing things could get worse during Halloween, and Thanksgiving and winter breaks. The district will reassess in mid-January, before the mandate expires, Broadnax said.
Nationwide, schools have been repeatedly ambushed by changes in the pandemic. This summer, with case counts plummeting, many schools abandoned virtual learning, only to have to scramble weeks later to provide it again when cases surged.
Shifts like that are just one reason Tan, of Lurie Children’s Hospital, advises schools to stay vigilant. With large numbers of adults and children unvaccinated, and the cold winter months coming, new surges are possible, she said. Transmission risk may be declining, but it’s still considered high in most areas, she said.
“People let down their guards, and then we get surprised,” said Tan.
A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as Some Schools Are Dropping Mask Mandates. Should Yours?