Mask mandates are making a comeback at public schools in Louisville. They could return to Los Angeles, after a possible decision this week. And outside Atlanta, where classes start in a matter of days, they are required for school employees.
This is not what school leaders hoped for when they pictured the lead-up to the 2022-2023 school year. But a sizable swath of the country is seeing a surge of COVID-19 cases, according to data posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For another year, educators are scrambling to adjust to COVID’s fluctuations. CDC data shows a “high” COVID-19 “community level” — a measure of case and hospitalization rates — in hundreds of counties, as the omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 have spread.
“Everybody wishes we didn’t have to wear masks, but the health experts recommend we wear them to keep people safe,” said Bernard Watson, spokesman for Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia, where the community level is high and more than 20,000 employees will be required to wear face coverings in buildings if the area remains at a high level on the first day of school, Aug. 3. Students are strongly encouraged to mask but are not included in the mandate because of a recent state law called the “Unmask Georgia Students Act,” which lets parents decide whether their children wear masks at school.
But while some school districts are following CDC guidance, which recommends universal masking indoors when community levels are high, others are taking a mask-optional approach. Some school systems have not decided, hoping the virus wanes before they open.
In San Diego, school district officials mandated masks indoors on July 18, when CDC data showed San Diego County hit a high COVID level and summer school was in session. But officials said this week they have not made a decision about mask-wearing when the regular school year starts on Aug. 29.
“Local health experts have advised that although cases are high now, our county could be out of the ‘high’ level by the end of August when classes resume,” officials of the San Diego Unified School District said in an email.
Critics condemned the San Diego decision. “The transmission parents fear is the mask mandates spreading across the country,” said Sharon McKeeman, a vocal opponent of masks and the founder of the advocacy group Let Them Breathe.
In nearby Los Angeles, health officials were considering a countywide indoor mask mandate for a list of settings, including schools, after the area reached a high COVID community level in mid-July. But on Tuesday, officials said that improving conditions could delay the decision, which had been expected Thursday.
Meanwhile, it is unclear whether the CDC plans to issue more guidance for schools as they reopen. A CDC spokeswoman declined to say. “We are constantly evaluating our guidance and as new science based evidence emerges necessary updates are made,” CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in a statement. The most recent recommendations came in a CDC update from May.
Daniel Domenech, of the AASA, the national school superintendents association, said intense political pressure affects decision-making. Even in high-risk areas, “there’s such resistance on the part of parents, on the part of the community, on the part of politicians … that a lot of people just throw their hands up in the air, and say, ‘Fine, no masks.’ “
Masking has been a hallmark of school life for most of the past two school years, but it has increasingly become cast as a choice, not a requirement, at a time of widespread vaccinations and testing, and rampant mask fatigue.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said it is clear that masking takes a toll in the classroom — when students with asthma find it difficult to breathe, for example, or when children cannot pick up on cues from teachers because they can’t see their entire faces.
“I completely understand both sides of this — the side that says they’re an impediment to learning and the side that says that when the omicron variant is rising, we need to have it,” Weingarten said. Still, she said, “the wars around masking have been very undermining of teaching and learning.”
In Nashville, Tenn., where the community level is high, schools will open Aug. 8 with optional masking, said spokesman Sean Braisted. Tennessee had sought to ban mask mandates, but a federal judge barred the state from doing so. The school board last voted in February to encourage but not require mask use, Braisted said.
In Kentucky, the 96,000-student school system in Jefferson County — where Louisville is located — chose from Day 1 to follow CDC guidance, so when it reached a high level of COVID last week, the mask mandate was revived for buildings and school buses, said spokesman Mark Hebert. School starts Aug. 10.
“Universal masking is required until Jefferson County is no longer in the red (high) level,” school officials wrote in a July 22 message to families and staffers. “We will update you on the masking status at the end of each week.”
In Georgia’s Clayton County, with a high COVID community level, the indoor mask mandate includes employees, contractors and visitors starting in July 25, said spokeswoman Jada Dawkins. Schools Superintendent Morcease Beasley said he did not want anything to get in the way of being able to greet students from day one, she said. If state law allowed, Beasley would require students be masked too, Dawkins said.
“Each community is different,” said John Heim, the executive director of the National School Boards Association. “Whereas one community may feel masks are necessary, another may not. That’s why masking decisions should be made at the local level, based on local health data and input from parents, students, educators, and other community members.”
In Maryland, the mask mandate in Prince George’s County, the state’s second-largest school system, was the longest in the state, ending only July 1. But the coming academic year is different: The school system decided to be mask-optional. The county is at a “medium” COVID community level, according to CDC data.
Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, pointed out that state and local decisions will fluctuate in response to changing case numbers. Policies will be rolled back when numbers drop, she said, “but if it intensifies enough to strain the health care system, for example, then that’s the time to reintroduce controls.”
And despite pandemic fatigue, high community levels of COVID should mean school masking and surveillance testing, said Meagan Fitzpatrick, an epidemiologist and a modeler of infectious-disease transmission at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
“Schools should not ignore that COVID exists,” Fitzpatrick said. “If schools don’t take steps to interrupt COVID, [then] COVID will interrupt the school year.”