Federal officials relaxed mask recommendations Friday, introducing new COVID-19 metrics that will give school districts the green light to end face-covering requirements in a broad swath of the country.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had previously recommended universal indoor masking in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status or level of community transmission. Under Friday’s new metrics, the agency recommends universal masking in public settings, including schools, only in areas at high risk of serious illness or strained health-care resources, a metric that currently includes about 37 percent of U.S. counties and 28 percent of the nation’s overall population.
Individuals at increased risk of severe illness should consult with a health-care provider about masking if they live in a medium-risk area, about 40 percent of counties, the CDC guidance says.
“We know that, because children are relatively at lower risk for severe illness, that schools can be safe places for children,” Greta Massetti, director of the CDC COVID-19 Response Incident Management Team, said on a call with reporters Friday.
The change comes after nearly two years of fierce debate over the issue of masking children in schools, a question that has stressed district leaders and divided their communities. It comes as leaders around the country push for an approach of “living with COVID” by easing some mitigation strategies in hopes the virus will enter a more endemic phase. It also comes as rates of the virus subside around the country following surges related to the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19.
The announcement once again puts a tough choice in the hands of some education leaders, who must weigh varying perceptions of risk, a desire to minimize interruptions, and the needs of medically vulnerable students and their families.
But in many places, that decision has already been made. Even cautious governors in states controlled by Democrats announced plans to end statewide rules in recent weeks, and some Republican-controlled states have prohibited schools from setting local mask requirements.
Federal, state shifts put the masking call in the hands of local decisionmakers
For public spaces in general, the CDC previously relied on color-coded metrics that put most of the country—about 97 percent of counties—in “high” or “substantial risk of transmission” areas where masking was recommended.
The CDC’s new metrics rely on rates illness and hospital capacity, rather than total numbers of COVID-19 cases. That will change the map, putting about half of the country in lower-risk areas where universal indoor masking is not recommended in public places. The new guidance stresses individual decisionmaking and emphasizes that people can choose to continue wearing masks, regardless of the risk level of their communities. Data about county risk levels, which will be updated weekly, will be available on the CDC website.
“We need to be able to relax our layered prevention measures when we have fewer cases and hospitalizations, but then we need to be able to dial them up again should there be a new variant or a new surge,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters Friday.
But, regardless of state and federal rules and recommendations, the calculus on masking has always been more complicated for schools. Mask requirements are embedded in teacher contracts in some large districts, alongside other virus precautions. And mask-wearing is also part of districts’ policies on quarantines and returning to the classroom after exposure to a COVID-19 case.
Police had to respond to a Coventry, Conn., school board meeting Thursday when an emotional crowd erupted during a discussion about masks, the Journal Inquirer reported. The state recently announced plans to let its universal school mask requirement expire Feb. 28, and the Coventry board voted to make masks optional after that point unless virus rates in the community rise above a certain threshold.
The Durham, N.C., school board voted Thursday to keep a mask requirement in place, even after Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, urged schools to make face-covering optional. A majority of public comments submitted before the meeting supported continuing the requirement, a district spokesperson told the Raleigh News-Observer.
It remains unclear if parents’ opinions on masking will shift along with federal guidance.
Disability rights factor into school-masking debates
The needs of students with disabilities have also played a role in local discussions.
In the fall, the Biden administration launched civil rights investigations into states that banned schools from setting mask requirements, arguing those measures violated the rights of students with disabilities, who may be at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Parents of medically vulnerable students have successfully made such arguments in federal court.
Officials in 10 states have set such bans, according to an Education Week analysis, but those actions have been blocked by courts or suspended in six of those states. Several of the states that prohibit school masks requirements, including Texas and Florida, have large swaths of communities that still fall into high-risk areas where masks are recommended under the new CDC metrics.
On the other hand, 11 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. Officials in seven states that currently require masks recently announced that their mandates will end in the coming weeks.
Even as it prepared to ease its guidance on broader precautions, the Biden administration released a plan Thursday that detailed actions to protect individuals with disabilities, including students. That White House plan calls on the U.S. Department of Education to “work with school administrators and educators on strategies they can use to continue providing safe, in-person instruction for all students in their classes.” It called on agencies to disseminate information to parents of students with disabilities about “how to navigate their child’s in-person learning experience.”
The Biden administration has also provided “high-quality” masks, disposable masks that more effectively protect wearers, even if those around them have uncovered faces, calling on states to distribute them through community organizations that serve higher risk individuals.
Some prominent public health experts, including former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, have recently called for more nuanced rules on masking.
But other scientists and advocacy groups have said it’s too soon for schools to step away from masking. A newly formed coalition called The Urgency of Equity released a plan in February that emphasizes that COVID-19 is an airborne illness. The group, which includes COVID-19 survivor organizations and academics like Yale University Epidemiology Professor Gregg Gonsalves, called on schools to make “high-quality masks” available to all students, and it defended the role of universal masking.
“We all want students to be safe and able to learn: evidence suggests that the best way to ensure the safety of students, teachers, and staff and to keep schools open is to use layers of protection,” that plan says.
In a statement on the new CDC guidance Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona called on schools to continue to prioritize in-person learning and to use federal COVID-19 relief aid in their recovery efforts.
“Moving forward, districts should continue to work with local health experts, parents, and educators to identify what works best for their communities and consider the appropriate mitigation strategies needed to keep students and staff safe,” Cardona said.