As indoor mask requirements fell away across the country this week, leaders in the states home to America’s largest school districts made an important distinction: Classrooms are different from other public spaces, they argued, and mandates there will remain in place — for now.
The Democratic governors of California, Illinois and New York all announced plans in recent days to phase out mask rules for businesses, but said they needed more time and data before they could make a decision about face coverings in schools, one of the most contentious and hotly debated aspects of the pandemic response.
The politics around these policies are changing rapidly, as other leaders in blue states have nixed indoor mandates entirely, and some experts who have previously pushed for stringent virus mitigation measures have called for an end to requiring masks in schools. The latest wave of governors — whose constituencies include school districts in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago — appear to be reaching for a middle ground, lifting rules for many indoor spaces but carving out exceptions for educational institutions and other venues.
In making the case for this stance, leaders have cited two primary concerns: Vaccination rates for children, particularly the youngest eligible, remain far lower than those of adults; and social distancing is more difficult in schools, where students spend hours in proximity at desks, in hallways and in cafeterias. Masks will also still be required in licensed child-care centers in all three states.
“Schools are unlike most other environments,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday. “The equation for schools just looks different right now than it does for the general population. Schools just need a little more time — for community infection rates to drop, for our youngest learners to become vaccine-eligible and for more parents to get their kids vaccinated.”
Children are in school “for six to eight hours, five days a week, week after week after week,” he added. “That’s very different than someone going to a bar even for two hours or going to a ballgame.”
In New York, where the indoor mandate expired Thursday, Gov. Kathy Hochul said her office will reassess the situation in schools during the first week of March, after students return from break. The state will provide parents with coronavirus tests, she said, and watch for potential spikes in infection during that week before making a decision about ending the mandate.
She said schools are different from workplaces, where “people have the ability for movement.”
“Kids are in a very concentrated setting,” she said. “And also, adults can make their own decisions. Children still need adults to look out for their health.”
California, meanwhile, will announce “in a matter of days” its plans for updating the statewide school mask mandate, which is set to continue after the business requirements expire next week, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday.
Negotiations among local school boards, labor leaders and parents are delicate, he said, and they’ve been working for weeks to come to an agreement. Newsom declined to discuss the specifics of the impending plan and did not say what the updates would look like.
But the “fundamental factor,” he said, will be the rate of vaccination among children, which is “substantially lower” than the adult population. Just 28% of California’s 5-to-11-year-olds are fully vaccinated, according to state data, compared to 75% of those aged 18 to 49 and more than 83% of over 50 years old.
Still, the leaders signaled that if infections continue to decline and immunization rates increase, they would lift the school mandates in the coming weeks or months, perhaps as early as March.
Illinois will be among the most closely watched states, as leaders look to avoid a repeat of the teacher strikes that shuttered Chicago schools in January. An Illinois judge last week temporarily granted an order barring 140 school districts who sued Pritzker from enforcing the mask mandate. The state plans to appeal the ruling.
Hochul said it is “a very strong possibility” that she lifts the schools mandate in New York on March 7 if infection rates continue their downward trend.
At her Wednesday news briefing, she acknowledged the intense public pressure around required face coverings in classrooms, calling it “the most common question I get in the state of New York.”
Some experts have said the recent rollbacks in many states seem to have more to do with this pressure than with public health considerations.
“It fits with this wishful thinking narrative that many people in America are following — that we can go back to normal, the worst is over — when in reality 3,000 people still die every day of COVID and hospitals are still heavily impacted,” said Jorge Luis Salinas, a hospital epidemiologist at Stanford University.
Salinas said he agrees schools present more opportunities for virus transmission, but just because the risk is greater there doesn’t mean it’s safe elsewhere.
“Why would we require it in one place but not in another?” he said. “I don’t see the consistency from a public health point of view. If you apply a different lens, a political lens, then perhaps it can be more easily explained.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky has said that the agency’s recommendations — to wear masks in areas with high or substantial coronavirus transmission, which includes most of the country — have not changed and that now is not the time to relax restrictions nationwide. The White House has backed this position, encouraging Americans to continue following the CDC’s guidance, regardless of loosening local restrictions.
In an interview with NBC News that aired Thursday evening, President Joe Biden avoided directly criticizing the governors who have announced mandate rollbacks, but he reiterated the effectiveness of masking.
“I’ve committed that I would follow the science,” Biden said when asked if leaders were moving too quickly. “And I think it’s probably premature, but, you know, it’s a tough call.”
Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Oregon have all announced an end to their indoor mask mandates — including those for schools — in recent days, each state following slightly different timelines. Officials in Delaware and Rhode Island have also said they would drop restrictions, but plan to keep school rules in place into March.
Public opinion polling has found disagreement among Americans over mask mandates in both schools and public settings.
In November, Monmouth University pollsters found that 60% of parents supported the requirement in schools. The university’s January survey did not ask about school masking specifically but found that 52% of adults overall favored having mask and social distancing guidelines in their state, down from a high of 63% in September.
Thirty percent of parents wanted schools to be open in person without masks or social distancing when choosing from several options, according to a January Fox Business poll.
And a CNN survey conducted in January and February found that 64% of people with children under 18 said it was “time to learn to live with the virus.”
In San Francisco, parents have been making this appeal to Democratic Mayor London Breed, asking in a letter that she “come out in support of a return to normalcy for the children of this city, including mask choice in schools.”
The letter’s author — Laura Fagan, who has three children under the age of 8 — said in an interview that she collected 400 signatures before sending it on Thursday. In asking for parents to be allowed to choose whether to mask their kids, she pointed to other states and countries that have not required face coverings in school, cited the low risk the virus poses to children and said she feared the consequences of pandemic disruptions.
“Kids should be the priority,” said Fagan, 43, who works for a tech company. “They’re OK — we should celebrate that. And we should stop limiting their childhood.”
A number of clinicians and scientists have also been advancing a version of this argument in recent weeks. Calling their mission “the urgency of normal,” one group has called for kids to doff their masks and resume pre-pandemic activities by next week.
“It’s not anti-mask. It’s pro-choice,” said one of the physicians involved, Lucy McBride, who said there are social, educational and mental health costs of keeping children masked.
But the message has been controversial. Former CDC director Tom Frieden said in an interview that a tweet he wrote, along with a headshot that appears prominently on the group’s website, was posted without his permission, “implying that I support positions that I don’t support.”
Mark Kline, chief medical officer at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, said the group’s message is “not junk science, it’s just junk” that did not to reflect that classrooms are “hotbeds” of transmission of most respiratory diseases.
Some teachers unions have signaled they prefer a more cautious approach to lifting school mandates. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said she has for months been asking the CDC for an “offramp” for masks in schools but hasn’t received guidance. Weingarten has said repeatedly that the recommendations should be guided by science, not politics, and on Thursday she applauded Hochul’s approach.
“This is a smart way to adapt to local circumstances,” Weingarten said on Twitter.
David Rubin, a pediatrician and director of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said the country may be nearing a turning point, where governments can shift from requirements to recommendations. He described the earlier phase of the pandemic as “risk elimination at all costs,” saying that with no access to vaccines amid a new virus, “it made sense — it was a true emergency.”
Now, cases have declined sharply, vaccines are available for adults and for children over 5, and the omicron-driven crisis is receding.
“In the context of all of that, I think we have to be very circumspect about when we require things of individuals,” Rubin said. He added: “To me, I think the arguments are increasingly in favor of allowing schools to shift to policies that are based on recommendations instead of requirements.”
Rubin noted that throughout the pandemic, kids have been at lower risk than adults, even if they are unvaccinated. There is very little data available about the potential downsides of masking in schools, he said. But lacking data does not mean there’s no risk — instead, he said, harms could be introduced that are not being measured, such as impacts on a child’s learning ability and social development.
With the worst of the omicron wave receding and more children eligible for vaccination, “this is really a moment to take advantage of,” Rubin said. “And it’s really a question of when schools make that pivot.”
The Washington Post’s Scott Clement contributed to this report.