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.
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.
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.”
As of Nov. 15, nine states have banned school districts from setting universal mask mandates. Those bans are in effect in three states. In the remaining six states, mask mandate bans have been blocked, suspended, or are not being enforced. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia require masks be worn in schools.
MASK MANDATE BAN IN EFFECT
MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED
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.”