Every day, it seems, brings a new threat, lawsuit court order or protest as educators, parents, public health authorities and politicians battle over whether students should be required to wear masks in school and whether school districts should be allowed to impose such requirements.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all students, staff and visitors inside school buildings wear masks at all times. Some states have rules that echo the CDC, requiring masks in schools statewide and prompting local protests across the country.
Other states have gone the opposite direction, barring their school districts from imposing mask mandates. The result has been an escalating war that generally pits Republican state officials — who argue that parents should have the right to decide about masks for their children — against school districts — who cite the rising virus caseloads, contagious delta variant and proven efficacy of masks in requiring them.
This battle is playing out in courtrooms and in muscle-flexing in state capitols, in school boards and in the White House, where President Joe Biden says he is investigating what power he may have to support mask requirements.
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about school masks:
What does the CDC recommend about masking in schools?
In early August, the CDC updated its recommendations for masks in light of the surging delta variant. The agency recommended universal masking in K-12 schools for all students aged 2 and older, staff, teachers and visitors, regardless of vaccination status.
That decision came just weeks after the agency had said masks were not needed indoors for those who had been vaccinated. The CDC said it changed its recommendations based on the surging delta variant.
The agency also recommends a range of other protections including vaccination, distances of at least three feet where possible, screening testing, good ventilation, handwashing, contact tracing, and cleaning and disinfection.
How many states require masks in schools?
According to Burbio, a data firm that tracks school policies, 12 states mandate masks in schools statewide, and all 12 have Democratic governors: California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Louisiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey and Connecticut. The District of Columbia, with a Democratic mayor, does the same.
How many states prohibit schools from requiring masks?
At least seven states have banned local districts from instituting a mask mandate in their schools: Texas, Florida, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma, Iowa and South Carolina. Arkansas has a law on the books that does the same. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchison supported that measure, then changed his mind and asked the legislature to modify it. Lawmakers refused, but a judge has put the Arkansas law on temporary hold.
What’s been the reaction to these rules?
The statewide mask mandates have sparked a range of local protests from parents who argue that they should be allowed to make these decisions for their children. But it’s the mandate bans that have caused the most turmoil.
In Florida, several school districts have said they will implement mask mandates in defiance of an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and multiple lawsuits have been filed by parents seeking to overturn the governor’s order.
In response, DeSantis and his administration have threatened to reduce state funding to districts with mask mandates in an amount equal to the salaries of the superintendent and school board members. His administration has also ruled that students in districts where masks are required now qualify for private school vouchers, part of a program meant to protect students who have been bullied or harassed. (Many private schools, meanwhile, have their own mask mandates).
In Texas, there have been several legal challenges seeking to block an executive order from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, banning mask mandates. Two courts have issued preliminary rulings putting the order on hold in cases that include schools as well as other public settings. A third suit, backed by eight school districts, mostly in the Rio Grande Valley, deals exclusively with schools. Large districts in Houston and Dallas have said they plan to ignore the state order and require masks.
“It’s astonishing to me that he’s using emergency powers to prevent people from responding to the emergency,” said Kevin O’Hanlon, an attorney representing the eight school districts.
Abbott’s office responded that the governor is confident his authority will be upheld.
Can the Biden administration impose a national mask mandate?
Probably not, said Lindsay Wiley, a law professor and expert in public health law at American University.
Federal law allows the CDC to respond when state actions are inadequate to stop interstate spread of disease, so theoretically the agency could try to use that power to impose mask mandates. It has used that power three times during the pandemic: to impose a moratorium on evictions; to prevent cruise ships from operating during the pandemic’s early stages; and to require masks in transit settings. Courts have struck down the first two of those orders, and the legal grounds for a mask mandate would be very shaky, Wiley said.
“The Biden administration could try but I think if they did so at this point it probably would be struck down in the courts,” she said.
Is there anything else the White House could do?
The White House said this week that it is examining whether it can direct unused stimulus funds to support Florida school districts if the governor cuts their state funding. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is “continuing to look for ways” for “the U.S. government to support districts and schools as they try to follow the science.”
What does public opinion say?
The Kaiser Family Foundation found 63% of parents of children enrolled in school said their child’s school should require unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks in buildings. Thirty-six percent said they should not.
The poll found large partisan divides, with 88% of parents identifying as Democrats supporting mandatory masks. Among independents, it was 66%. But just 31% of Republicans agreed.
What about school buses? Are students required to wear masks on buses?
The CDC has issued a national order requiring masks on public transportation, and that includes buses operated by public and private schools.
What do authorities recommend about recess?
The CDC says people do not generally need to wear masks when outside. But if recess or physical education is held inside, the agency’s recommendations for universal masking apply.
What about mandating coronavirus vaccines?
There is growing support for requiring teachers and school staff to prove they have been vaccinated or undergo regular testing. On Wednesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a statewide vaccination requirement for school staff, and districts around the country are beginning to adopt the same policies.
Leaders of both large national teachers unions — the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association — have both voiced support for vaccine mandates for school staff.