Eighty-five percent of educators no longer plan to wear a mask on a regular basis at school this fall—but teachers are more likely than administrators to keep masking.
That’s according to a new, nationally representative survey by the EdWeek Research Center of 1,042 teachers, principals, and district leaders. The survey was conducted July 27 through Aug. 8—as COVID-19 cases across the country rose. The latest surge is driven by the BA.5 variant of the virus, which is highly transmissible and able to evade previous immunity.
Even so, most school districts and every U.S. state have dropped their mask requirements for students and staff, leaving the choice up to individuals. Nearly half of educators said they don’t plan to wear a mask this fall. Another 36 percent said they would only wear one in certain circumstances, like if they’re not feeling well. Just 12 percent of educators plan to wear a mask regularly without it being required.
“A lot of people are over it,” said Dave Richards, a high school teacher in Jefferson County, Ky.
But a breakdown of the results shows a significant difference in the behavior of teachers versus administrators.
Just 44 percent of teachers said outright that they will not wear a mask, compared to 55 percent of school leaders and 56 percent of district leaders. Teachers were also slightly more likely than administrators to say they’d wear a mask in certain circumstances, like if they weren’t feeling well.
Fifteen percent of teachers said they will wear a mask this fall even though it’s not required, compared to 8 percent of school leaders and another 8 percent of district leaders.
This gap held true in rural or town areas, where mask-wearing is often less common than elsewhere in the country. There, nearly half of teachers said outright that they don’t plan to wear a mask, compared to 67 percent of school leaders and 61 percent of district leaders.
Some teachers feel this difference in behavior is not surprising: “We’re in the trenches,” said Cameron Mitchell, a 6th grade science teacher in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas.
While administrators—especially at the district level—are often working alone in their offices, or with other adults, teachers are in close contact with a large group of children. Secondary teachers, in particular, may see more than a hundred different students throughout the course of the day.
Masks can protect against COVID-19, but educators are weary
Vaccines, boosters, and anti-viral medications have helped prevent severe illness for most people who contract the BA.5 variant, although each infection comes with the potential for long COVID—ongoing symptoms of fatigue, “brain fog,” and other ailments that can last for weeks or months. Scientists are still researching the prevalence and risk factors of the condition.
Also, the virus may continue to upend school operations as it did in the winter of this year, with administrators scrambling to find substitutes if multiple educators in a school building are sick and must quarantine.
Public health experts say that well-fitting, high-quality masks can protect against the variant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking in public settings, including schools, in areas with high community levels of COVID-19—although it stops short of saying that schools in those communities should mandate universal masking. As of Aug. 12, almost 42 percent of counties had high transmission levels, a metric that factors in hospital capacity and rates of severe illness.
Even so, many Americans are weary of pandemic restrictions and eager to return to normal. And masks are one of the most visible reminders of the pandemic.
The Jefferson County, Ky., school system is one of only a handful of large school districts that is requiring universal masking this year—a decision that has been largely unpopular among teachers. The Jefferson County Teachers Association surveyed its membership and found that 52 percent of members oppose masking, 38 percent support masking, and 10 percent are neutral or have no opinion.
Richards, the high school teacher there, noted that the school district is the only place in the county requiring masking, making the mandate feel “futile” in regards to containing the spread.
Masks also can be uncomfortable to teach in. Teachers have said projecting their voices so they can be heard through the mask has given them sore throats and voice strain. Some also say they feel as if the masks stymie their ability to connect with students, who can’t see their facial cues and smiles.
There are particular concerns for the teachers of early elementary grades and students learning English. Masks can get in the way of teaching reading, since students watch teachers model the correct tongue placement and mouth formation when sounding out letters and words, educators have said. English-language learners are also watching their teachers’ mouths during pronunciation lessons.
Most educators are vaccinated, past surveys show, which may also contribute to the decision to unmask.
Linda DeBerry, an elementary school principal in Dyersburg, Tenn., said she’s vaccinated and has had two booster shots. She now only feels the need to mask if there is high community spread or if she needs to be extra cautious—as was the case before a scheduled surgery that required her to have a negative COVID-19 test.
Some teachers feel safer in masks
Yet some educators say they will continue to wear a mask, even though they may be some of the only ones in their school building to do so.
Several teachers who continue to mask said they were doing so because they are pregnant or have another medical issue that puts them at higher risk for serious illness, have an infant at home too young to be vaccinated, or are protecting high-risk family members. Some are just reluctant to get sick, and still others say their decisions are informed by personal experience.
Anita Chakraborty-Spotts, a middle and high school teacher at Peak to Peak Charter School near Denver, wore a mask every day last school year—yet she believes she still contracted the virus at school and brought it home to her son and husband. Her husband, who had previously been healthy, became severely ill and had to be intubated. He now suffers from long COVID with lingering cognitive dysfunction, Chakraborty-Spotts said, and he has to do breathing treatments every six hours and wear a heart monitor.
She will continue to wear a mask this year to try to protect her family—and her students and colleagues.
“I really don’t want to have other families go through what we’ve been through,” she said. “I’m trying to communicate that we have to be as preventative in our measures as we can, because COVID is still ongoing.”
Jackie Schacht, a high school teacher in upstate New York, said she plans to wear a mask for at least the first couple months of the school year in solidarity with the few students who are still masking.
“One of my main driving factors is going to be their comfort and wanting to show them that they’re not alone,” she said of her decision.
Schacht, who has children of her own, is a member of online parenting groups, and she’s seen posts from parents who say their children feel peer pressure to discard their masks. The parents wrote that it helps when the child’s teacher, at least, is wearing a mask.
“Some of my older kids are very comfortable with themselves, but you can tell that some others—not so much, they’re easily influenced by the kids around them,” Schacht said. “If masking already doesn’t bother me, and depending on the day, I feel more comfortable doing it, why not just do that all the time?”
Mitchell, the middle school teacher in Texas, said he doesn’t always wear a mask when he’s at the front of the classroom, but he puts one on when he’s walking around the room and engaging in one-on-one conversations with students. That extra precaution helps him feel more comfortable getting close to a student as he helps them with their work.
There’s also another, lighter perk of wearing a mask: It shields him from any unpleasant smells while teaching middle schoolers, an age group not exactly renown for obsessive cleanliness. Mitchell has a bag of freshly laundered reusable masks that he draws from, especially after lunch or physical education classes.
“It helps me get through the day when I’m smelling Gain in my nostrils,” he quipped.
A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2022 edition of Education Week as ‘Over It’: Most Educators Say They Won’t Wear Masks This Fall