State Superintendent Chris Reykdal is asking Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and the state health department to remove the statewide mask mandate for students in schools and let local health officials make that decision instead.
The request comes as other states, including Oregon, have announced they will relax their mask mandates in school settings. Inslee announced Wednesday he is considering a timeline for when to ease back the statewide order to wear masks indoors.
Reykdal says his view is based on declining case rates and hospitalizations, and feedback from districts around the state about the mask requirements affecting relationships among students, teachers and administrators.
“It’s creating an environment where schools feel[s] more like health regulation [enforcement],” he said, noting that he believed early, pre-vaccine demands to end mask requirements were unwise.
In some communities across the state, there’s been a steady drumbeat against the school mask mandate since its implementation in 2020. Fights have broken out at school board meetings, and opponents have staged protests and threatened lawsuits.
Such a change in policy could create a split among school districts that choose to keep a masking policy and those that scrap one. Though Reykdal said he’s heard support for ending the mandate across the state, students in the Seattle area are freshly protesting for access to protective equipment and better mitigation strategies.
“I would definitely not feel safe going to school if masks were not required,” said Natalya McConnell, a sophomore at Franklin High School. She’s among student activists who have been demanding Seattle Public Schools implement stricter safety protocols, including higher-quality masks for students and staff.
Reykdal still recommends schools continue on-site rapid testing and quarantine those who test positive. He noted some health officials could require a temporary return to masks if cases spike or a new variant poses a risk.
“My expectations are that the local health jurisdictions can do this. They’ve always had the legal authority — I don’t expect this to be a school board decision,” he said.
Seattle Public Schools is waiting for guidance from the King County Health Department to ensure mask protocols are in line with current COVID-19 conditions, said Tina Christiansen, district spokesperson.
McConnell, the Franklin student, said she is confident Seattle will continue to require masks but has concerns about other school districts in areas where there’s been pushback on mask mandates.
“Making masks no longer required, it’s like acting the COVID pandemic isn’t still ongoing,” McConnell said.
According to the SPS COVID dashboard, there were 482 cases of the virus in Seattle schools last week.
The president of the state teachers union, Larry Delaney, said he believed lifting the mandate would worsen class disruptions.
“At a time when schools, particularly those in communities of color and low-income communities, are facing staffing shortages we must anticipate that lifting the mask mandate will exacerbate the shortages and could interrupt learning,” Delaney said in a statement.
In early January, school districts across the state had to cancel classes because of staffing shortages, or return to temporary remote learning because of a surge in the virus. In some cases, Seattle schools didn’t have enough staff and were shut down.
But the widespread school closures have since slowed, said Reykdal.
“We’re down to one or two districts,” he said.
If masks weren’t required anymore, Delano Cordova, a senior at Franklin High who is also part of activism efforts, said he would still wear an N95 and it would make him feel safer in school. “Having masks is just an extra level of security.”
But others would like to see mask mandates end. Some students have never gone to school without wearing a mask and it has negatively affected their learning, one parent told Seattle board members at Wednesday’s meeting. A couple other parents said masks should be optional.
Delaney said educators need access to high-quality masks, sufficient sick leave and paid leave, and a metric that shows when a new mask mandate would be needed based on case levels. Since the beginning of the pandemic, WEA has called on the governor to follow the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the CDC’s guidance on masks in schools has not changed, he added.
Other states have relaxed or removed mask mandates. Governors in Oregon and California are ending indoor mask mandates. Governors in Oregon, Connecticut, Delaware and New Jersey have announced plans to end statewide mask mandates in schools.
Reykdal said he’d been thinking for a while about the moment it would be appropriate to phase out the requirement. Should Inslee give the green light, he said, he’d feel comfortable strolling into a school or grocery store without a mask on.
“I won’t have a concern about it personally — because I have been empowered through science,” he said.
Until that day arrives, though, he stressed, “There is a mask requirement.”