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States Pressured to Rethink Bans on School Mask Mandates as COVID Delta Variant Surges

By Evie Blad — August 03, 2021 7 min read
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In Arkansas—a state considered one of the country’s worst COVID-19 hot spots—schools are legally prohibited from mandating students and teachers to wear masks, which scientists have identified as key to containing the spread of the pandemic during in-person learning.

Though the state had required masks in schools for much of the past school year, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, signed a law in April that would prohibit them from putting their own local requirements in place. Eight states have such bans, many adopted before the highly contagious Delta variant began its rapid spread through the United States.

Now Hutchinson is seeking to reverse course. Amid low vaccination rates and limited hospital capacity in Arkansas, he has declared a new public health emergency and called the legislature to convene a special session this week to revise or repeal Act 1002, which also prohibits him from setting a statewide mask mandate.

“This is not a debate about mask mandates for those who can make their own decisions and have means to get vaccinated,” Hutchinson said at a news conference last week. “This is a discussion about the environment where schools can make decisions to add to the public health for their own school environment and for the children that they have a responsibility to protect.”

The proposed U-turn on masking, and the resistance to it, make Arkansas a case study of a dynamic that’s playing out around the country as the Delta variant forges a fresh front in efforts to combat the pandemic.

In other states that have banned local school mask mandates — including Florida, Texas, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Utah— some anxious parents and educators have called on governors and state lawmakers to reconsider as they watch COVID-19 case counts climb.

At the same time, however, mask opponents have packed public forums and school board meetings to speak against such changes, calling their opposition a matter of personal freedom.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson takes off his face mask as he arrives for a daily coronavirus briefing at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. on April 27, 2020. Hutchinson signed a bill in April banning statewide and local mask mandates in Arkansas, but he is now considering rolling back that law amid concerns of the highly transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19.

School administrators, forced to play ad hoc epidemic experts as they steer their communities through the health crisis, are stuck in the middle as a contentious debate over virus precautions reaches a new peak.

After previously setting a mask requirement in defiance of an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, the Broward County, Fla., district said Monday it would comply because of the risk of losing state funding, despite concerns from local officials over rising caseloads in the region.

The Nashville school board plans to meet Thursday to discuss student mask rules, despite a threat from the legislature’s speaker of the House to call a special session if schools close for in-person learning or require face coverings, the Tennessean reports.

Meanwhile, teachers’ unions in states that allow local mask mandates, like Massachusetts, are calling on their governors to issue broader statewide directives for schools.

Delta variant poses challenges for schools

The actions follow new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week that called for universal mask wearing in schools. The agency, which previously said vaccinated students may not need to wear masks, cited emerging research about the Delta variant. Masks help prevent the wearer from contracting the virus and, worn universally, slow spread among populations, case studies have found.

“It is clear to me and to most medical experts that the decisions being made by not allowing mask mandates in schools are bad health policy,” President Joe Biden said at a news conference Tuesday.

While vaccinated people are far less likely to contract the coronavirus, those who do get sick with the Delta variant may risk transmitting it to others, researchers have found. And, because unvaccinated people make up the vast majority of virus-related hospitalizations and deaths, some public health officials have referred to COVID-19 as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

School Mask Mandates at a Glance

  • MASK MANDATE BAN IN EFFECT


    1. Florida

    On Sept. 22, Florida's surgeon general instituted a rule that gives parents and legal guardians "sole discretion" over masking in schools. On Nov. 5, a judge sided with the state health department in a legal challenge to rule. On Nov. 18, Gov. DeSantis signed a bill that allows parents to sue school districts that require masks.

    2. Georgia

    On March 29, Gov. Kemp signed the “Unmask Georgia Students Act” which allows parents to exempt their child from a school mask requirement. The law went into effect immediately.

    3. Iowa

    On Sept. 13, 2021, a federal judge ordered Iowa to halt enforcement of its law banning mask mandates in schools. On Jan. 25, 2022, a federal appeals panel narrowed that injunction. Iowa’s attorney general announced the state is not enforcing the ban while awaiting further action from the court. On May 16, 2022 a U.S. Court of Appeals lifted the injunction.

    4. Oklahoma

    On Sept. 1, an Oklahoma judge temporarily blocked the state law banning school mask mandates, but students or their parents can still opt out of school mask mandates if they choose.

    5. Utah

    In Utah, local health departments can issue 30-day school mask mandates with approval from the state or county government, according to the state’s top education official.

    6. Virginia

    On Jan. 15, Gov. Youngkin issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their child out of any school mask mandate. It effectively rescinded the state's school mask requirement that had been in place since August. That executive order was later halted by a judge. On Feb. 14, the Virginia legislature passed a measure that bans school mask mandates. That bill was signed by the governor on Feb. 16 and went into effect on March 1.

    MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED


    1. Arizona

    On Sept. 27, a judge in Arizona blocked the state laws banning mask mandates that were set to take effect on Sept. 29. On Nov. 2, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld that ruling. On April 25, Gov. Ducey signed HB2616, which prevents schools from requiring a student to wear a mask without first getting parental consent. The ban, which replaces the one blocked by the courts, will go into effect 90 days after the legislature adjourns.

    2. Arkansas

    An Arkansas judge ruled on Dec. 29, that a law signed by the governor in April that prohibited local officials, including school boards, from setting mask mandates was unconstitutional. School districts have been able to set their own mask requirements since August when the judge put the law on hold.

    3. South Carolina

    On Sept. 28, a federal judge suspended South Carolina from enforcing the rule that banned school districts from requiring masks for students.

    4. Tennessee
    5. Texas

    On March 17, an appeals court upheld an injunction that blocked Gov. Abbott's executive order banning mask mandates in schools, finding it is unlawful and exceeding the governor's authority. This is not the first time the state's ban has been halted by a judge.

    MASK REQUIREMENT IN EFFECT


    1. Hawaii

    Although Hawaii's state-wide indoor mask mandate ended on March 25, indoor masking will still be required in public schools at least through the summer.

    PREVIOUSLY HAD MASK REQUIREMENT


    1. California

    On Feb. 28, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington issued a joint announcement that mask requirements would end in their states effective March 12.

    2. Connecticut

    On Feb. 7, Gov. Lamont announced that the school mask rule would expire Feb. 28. He signed a bill on Feb. 15 that made the expiration date official.

    3. Delaware

    On Feb. 7, Gov. Carney amended his emergency order to allow his state-level school mask requirement to expire March 31. On Feb. 28, he announced that masks would no longer be required effective at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 1.

    4. District of Columbia

    On March 8, the department of health released updated guidelines that recommend universal masking only when community COVID-19 levels are high.

    5. Illinois

    On Feb. 5, a judge issued a temporary restraining order on the governor's statewide mask requirement. On Feb. 25, the state supreme court vacated that order. On the same day, the governor announced he would lift the requirement on Feb. 28.

    6. Kentucky

    Kentucky's school mask mandate ended in September, when the state legislature voted to limit the governor’s emergency powers.

    7. Louisiana

    According to a State of Emergency proclamation issued Nov. 23, which was extended on Jan. 19, students were required to wear masks in schools, but districts could opt out of the mandate if they adopted an isolation and quarantine policy consistent with the state's department of health protocols. On Feb. 16, Gov. Bel Edwards extended the order without requiring masking in schools.

    8. Maryland

    On Jan. 5, the mask mandate was extended for 180 days, but allowed school districts to opt out if certain vaccination rates were met. On Feb. 22, the state board of education voted to rescind the mandate. On Feb. 25, a state legislative committee gave final approval to lift the mandate effective March 1.

    9. Massachusetts

    On Sept. 27, the state began allowing schools to apply for a waiver from the face covering rules for vaccinated individuals if certain vaccination rates were met. On Feb. 9, officials announced the statewide mask requirement for K-12 schools would be lifted on February 28.

    10. Nevada

    On Feb. 10, Gov. Sisolak announced the immediate suspension of the school mask requirement. The previous mask requirement had only applied to counties with populations of 100,000 people or more.

    11. New Jersey

    On Feb. 7, Gov. Murphy announced plans to end his state’s school-mask requirement on March 7.

    12. New Mexico

    On Feb. 17, Gov. Grisham announced the end of the mask requirement, effective immediately.

    13. New York

    On Jan. 24, a judge struck down the state's mask mandate. A day later, an appeals judge restored the mandate. On Feb. 27, Gov. Hochul announced the mandate would be lifted on March 2.

    14. Oregon

    On Feb. 7, health officials said the state would drop its school mask requirement no later than March 31. On Feb. 24, the Oregon Health Authority announced the requirement would lift on March 19. However, on Feb. 28, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington issued a joint announcement that mask requirements would end in their states effective March 12.

    15. Pennsylvania

    A statewide mask mandate for Pennsylvania schoolchildren was thrown out by the state Supreme Court on December 10.

    16. Rhode Island

    On Feb. 9, Gov McKee announced the school mask mandate would only remain in effect until March 4. On Feb. 15, he signed an executive order specifying that the order would take effect at 5 p.m. on March 4.

    17. Virginia

    On Jan. 15, Gov. Youngkin issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their child out of any school mask mandate. It effectively rescinded the state's school mask requirement that had been in place since August. That executive order was later halted by a judge. On Feb. 14, the Virginia legislature passed a measure that bans school mask mandates. That bill was signed by the governor on Feb. 16 and went into effect on March 1.

    18. Washington

    On Feb. 17, Gov. Inslee announced the state's school mask requirement will end effective March 21. However, on Feb. 28, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington issued a joint announcement that mask requirements would end in their states effective March 12.

  • NOTES
    In January 2022, the Missouri attorney general, Eric Schmitt, sued some school districts that required masks, citing a November ruling by a county judge that said local health orders tied to COVID-19 were illegal. (The ruling was interpreted differently by different districts.) The state’s treasurer announced he would also crack down on schools with mask mandates. In mid-March, Schmitt began dropping lawsuits against school districts that no longer required masks. On May 19, 2022 Schmitt announced new lawsuits against several districts that had reinstated mask requirements.
    On Feb. 23, 2022 New Hampshire’s governor announced the state was no longer recommending universal indoor masking and therefore schools have to end mask mandates, arguing they violate state education department rules. Soon after, the department advised districts that the mandates “are inconsistent with” their rules. There’s disagreement over whether districts still have the authority to require masks, but at least one district changed its policy in response. A bill that would have banned mask mandates was vetoed by Gov. Sununu in May 2022.
    Updated 5/23/2022 | Sources: Local media reports | Learn more here

Nationwide, children under age 12 aren’t eligible to be vaccinated, and rates of youth vaccination lag in many states. About 28 percent of Arkansans ages 12-17 have had at least one dose of the vaccine, according to an Aug. 2 White House report, and the state ranks among the three lowest in the country for overall vaccination rates, with about 36 percent of its population fully vaccinated.

Officials are concerned that the new variant may spread more easily among children. As he reinstated a public health emergency in his state, Hutchinson noted that Arkansas Children’s Hospital had 24 minor COVID-19 patients, half of them under the age of 12.

Some officials are also concerned that schools may become vectors of disease spread, allowing students to unknowingly contract and spread asymptomatic cases of the virus to more vulnerable members of their communities. The CDC has repeatedly stressed that schools should open for in-person learning this year, but they’ve called for “layered mitigation” strategies, including masks and proper ventilation, to help reduce risk.

Hospitals operating at capacity may threaten the well-being of vaccinated adults if they should need treatment unrelated to the virus, state officials have said. That’s led even some Republican governors who’ve been shy to embrace public health mandates to change their tune.

As Hutchinson announced his plans in Arkansas, he told of four COVID-19 patients who had to spend an extended period of time waiting in ambulances as health-care providers searched for scarce hospital beds to treat them. Every county in the state is at the CDC’s highest level of community transmission, according to the most recent federal data, as is much of the southern portion of the country.

Opponents of masks in schools remain adamant

In a nationally representative Gallup poll released Tuesday, 64 percent of respondents said they support requiring masks for unvaccinated students. Support was slightly lower among respondents who identified as parents of K-12 students, at 57 percent. The poll did not ask about requirements for vaccinated individuals.

But opponents of mask mandates remain resolved in their position.

“We have seen what happens when our children are subjected to wearing masks in the classroom, they can’t perform or learn,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, told Fox News Sunday, voicing unsupported claims that face coverings pose harm. “The decision is up to the parents on whether or not they want their child to wear a mask in school.”

In Arkansas, Hutchinson himself acknowledged that it will be a “heavy lift” to convince state lawmakers to change the state’s law; the original sponsor has said he sees no need to amend it. And supporters of the change remain doubtful two-thirds of legislators would pass the emergency clause necessary for any change to take effect before the 2021-22 school year.

Meanwhile, an attorney representing a group of public school parents filed a lawsuit Monday seeking to overturn the Arkansas law, and the Little Rock school board planned to meet Wednesday to vote on its own potential legal action against the state.

“I’m not confident that [reversal] will occur,” Little Rock Superintendent Mike Poore said in a video explaining his proposed lawsuit against the state. Taking legal action may provide the district the option to act on its own, he said.

In town halls around the state, Hutchinson has faced angry community members who’ve sometimes yelled misinformation about the pandemic as they oppose his calls for more Arkansans to be vaccinated.

Arkansas superintendents have struggled to keep up with changing science and competing demands from their communities, said Mike Hernandez, the executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators.

“They have community members and parents who say, ‘If you require masks, we won’t send our kids to school.’ And they have parents who say, ‘If you don’t require masks, we won’t send our kids to school,’” he said.

The fresh mask debates are another example of the kinds of competing tensions school leaders have faced for years, even before the pandemic, said Jeffrey Henig a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Even in debates over issues like testing and learning standards, local administrators and school boards must deal with increasingly polarized state legislatures, a public distrust of expertise, and shifting political pressures that can make it difficult for them to set policy, he said.

That dynamic has played out during the pandemic as they’ve struggled to respond to conflicting public health directives and a shifting understanding of the virus.

“It feels like the wind right now is still blowing against the value of expertise and in the populist direction,” Henig said. “It’s hard to tell whether that is a short-term breeze or if it’s a long-term one. I think there is that potential for this [dynamic] to flip...But we haven’t seen that effectively yet.”

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