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Future of School Mask Mandates Remains Uncertain

Education Policy Brief #60 | By: Lynn Waldsmith | October 28, 2021

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Policy Summary

Growing numbers of school districts are easing mask mandates in the face of pressure from Republican state lawmakers, strong opposition from parents and as the latest wave of Covid-19 appears to be declining in many parts of the country. 

While the Biden administration has recommended universal masking in schools, more than 30 governors have refused to implement such mandates — and some have banned them altogether. Most notable is the ongoing public battle between the federal government and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who maintains that only parents have the right to order their children to wear masks.

Yet more than half of Florida’s students live in counties where mask mandates are in place. A Florida judge is expected to rule by Nov. 5 in a lawsuit where six school boards are challenging the state Dept. of Health rule designed to prevent student mask requirements. The state says parents or guardians should have the right to opt out of mask requirements. Districts face state financial penalties for adopting policies that require students to wear masks to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Policy Analysis

After DeSantis began to withhold funding from Florida districts that were enforcing mask mandates, the U.S. Education Department launched a civil rights investigation into Florida’s ban on mask mandates in schools, arguing it could harm students with disabilities. The Biden administration has also threatened similar action against several other states, but to date the strategy has produced no tangible results.

Meanwhile, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, in a recent “Axios on HBO” interview, said he’s reluctant to withhold federal funding from states that won’t enforce school mask mandates.

“I don’t know that holding funds from students is the best approach,” Cardona said. “Ultimately, the students need more support, not less.”

According to Burbio, which tracks the developments and runs a dashboard on schools:

  • About 42 percent of students live in states that have mask mandates for all schools.
  • Nearly 31 percent live in states that have removed school mask mandates, though local districts have flexibility to mandate masks.
  • About 24 percent of public K-12 students live in “legal limbo” states where state-level mandate bans face legal challenges and some districts require masks. 
  • Less than 3 percent of students live in states where local districts do not have the power to require masks.

The trend for face coverings in schools appears to be shifting away from state control towards local authority, and to encouraging mask wearing rather than requiring it. Burbio’s most recent data shows 78 percent of the 500 largest districts still require masks, with many of the schools that have made a change making face coverings optional.

 In Michigan, for example, more than half of all students attend a school with a mask mandate. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan Dept. of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel have the power to enact a statewide mask mandate, but have asked local health and education leaders to enact their own rules. 

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As in many parts of the country, that approach has led to vitriol, personal attacks and even death threats against members of local school boards and health departments from angry parents who vehemently oppose mask mandates for their children in the name of personal freedom.

“Conditions are continuing to deteriorate and have become even more volatile at the local level,” Norm Hess, executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health, told The Detroit Free Press. The association has formally pleaded for a statewide school mask mandate. 

“One of the reasons we had heard from the state that it was preferable to have local orders is the notion that people would be more likely to comply with a local order than with a statewide order, but we are not finding that to be true.”

The shift towards making mask-wearing optional in more schools is likely also partly due to the waning of the U.S. delta wave, which hit just as schools were preparing to return from summer break. According to The Washington Post’s tracking, new daily coronavirus cases have fallen about 60 percent nationwide since a mid-September peak.

When the 2021-2022 school year began, every state was in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s worst Covid-19 community-transmission category, “high,” meaning they were all recording at least 100 new weekly cases per 100,000 residents or had a case positivity rate of 10 percent or more. Now, at least 9 states have dropped to the “substantial” level, the second worst of the four categories.

 

 At the local level, there’s even more reason for optimism, since the CDC has 171 counties, or 5.3%, in its “moderate” or “low” transmission categories. At those levels, the agency has more relaxed guidelines for schools.

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However, it’s not clear how winter weather will impact Covid-19 transmission levels going forward. While the future of mask mandates remains uncertain in America’s schools, the question of vaccine mandates for students also looms on the horizon, especially now that pediatricians may be able to start vaccinating children ages 5-11 years against Covid-19 in a matter of weeks. 

Advisers to the Food and Drug Administration have now endorsed the shots for younger children in that age group, concluding that the benefits outweigh the risks. The FDA is now expected to grant emergency use authorization, clearing the way for 28 million kids to receive the vaccine.

California recently became the first state to announce Covid-19 vaccines will be required for in-person learning for K-12 age groups after the FDA grants full approval for children. It remains to be seen, however, how many states will follow California’s lead.

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