Federal health officials plan to update guidance on indoor masking during the COVID-19 pandemic, a shift that is expected to give more local leaders the greenlight to relax requirements in the coming weeks. But it’s unclear whether they will also change recommendations for schools.
The move comes after a wave of governors in Democratically controlled states in recent weeks announced plans to relax school mask requirements, even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend universal masking in schools, regardless of vaccination status or community transmission levels.
While some high-profile physicians have suggested an “off-ramp” for school masking in areas where virus deaths have declined, dropping the federal recommendation would carry special considerations for groups like students with disabilities, who have been the focus of multiple federal lawsuits over school masking policies.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky confirmed Wednesday plans to adjust general federal guidance on precautions, including indoor masking, in late February or in March. She did not specify how those changes would apply to recommendations for K-12 schools, saying only that the agency is reviewing “all guidance” as the pandemic enters its third year.
“We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing when these [COVID] metrics are better and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen,” Walensky said at a regular briefing with the White House COVID-19 Response Team Wednesday.
A spokesperson for the CDC also did not say if those new federal recommendations would apply to schools, saying in an email to Education Week that the agency “is regularly reviewing our guidance to ensure we are providing science-based recommendations that are most relevant for each moment of the pandemic.”
CDC is weighing COVID metrics in its review
The agency currently recommends masks in public places, like supermarkets, in geographic areas designated as “high transmission,” a metric that is defined by COVID-19 case rates. But the highly contagious omnicron variant means most of the country remains in that red zone, even as hospitalizations decline in many areas.
For indoor masking in general, federal health officials are assessing more-nuanced metrics that rely on factors like hospital capacity and rates of death and severe illness to determine if local leaders should impose mask rules, Walensky said.
“If and when we update guidance, we will communicate that clearly,” she said, emphasizing that current recommendations remain in place. Some governors, in states including Connecticut and Massachusetts, have announced plans to drop indoor mask requirements, including in schools, in March. Walensky said she expects that those delayed actions may take effect as new, looser metrics apply in those areas.
The federal recommendations are not mandates; rather, they are designed to drive local decisions. And states and localities have long had wide variations in how they’ve responded to the health crisis. While some governors have required universal masking in schools, others, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have threatened to withhold funding from districts that set such requirements locally. But, in recent weeks, some states that have had some of the strongest precautions have announced plans to relax them, citing declining rates of hospitalizations following the omnicron surge.
Currently, 12 states and the District of Columbia require masks to be worn in schools, down from a high of 18 states and the District of Columbia earlier this school year, according to an Education Week analysis. By March 31, requirements in six of these states will have ended. Those states are Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, and Rhode Island.
It may be more complicated, and more politically fraught, for federal health officials to change their guidance for schools than it will be to adjust calls for masking in public places more generally. That is in part because the Biden administration has argued that inadequate masking in schools may make them unsafe for students with disabilities, who are at higher risk for severe illness for the virus, violating their civil rights. An additional consideration: Once schools rescind mask rules, it may be difficult to reinstate them if a new virus variant emerges.
And, even if federal and state guidance changes, local leaders may opt to leave requirements in place. Education Week has reported that masks are included in agreements with teachers unions and policies about issues like quarantines.