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Three Governors to End School Mask Rules. Will Others Follow?

Is this the beginning of the end for states’ school mask requirements?

As the nation’s schools enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, educators in nearly a dozen states await decisions from their governors about whether to continue universal mask requirements in schools.

Governors in Connecticut, Delaware, and New Jersey announced plans Monday to end universal school mask requirements as early as Feb. 28, and several other states are soon set to consider whether to extend their existing mandates or to allow them to expire.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all students and adults age 2 and older wear face coverings in schools, both to protect themselves and to limit the risk of transmission.

But the wide availability of vaccines, the extended duration of the pandemic, and the apparent cresting of a steep wave of new virus cases driven by the highly contagious omicron variant has led some scientists to call for easing of face covering requirements.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia require masks to be worn in schools, most under rules that date back to the start of the 2020-21 school year. But as of Feb. 5, four states had bans in effect preventing school districts from setting universal mask mandates, according to an Education Week analysis. Six additional states have such bans on the books, but they have been blocked, suspended, or are not being enforced.

A shift in policy in some states with mandates

Among states with mask requirements, the policy landscape continues to shift.

“Balancing public health with getting back to some semblance of normalcy is not easy,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said Monday as he announced plans to end his state’s school-mask requirement on March 7. “But we can responsibly take this step due to declining COVID numbers and growth in vaccinations.”

Delaware Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, amended his emergency order Monday to allow his state-level school mask requirement to expire March 31. The timing of the change gives schools “time to consider local mask requirements, and gives the Division of Public Health (DPH) and the Department of Education (DOE) time to work with schools on updates to quarantine and contact tracing guidance,” Carney’s office said in a statement.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, announced Monday that his school mask rule would expire Feb. 28.

The states’ moves signal the possible start of a trend of easing restrictions in states that have had some of the strongest virus precautions, putting decisions back in the hands of school and district leaders.

But some parents and advocates for students at higher risk of severe illness say such moves are premature. In states like Iowa and South Carolina, ongoing lawsuits argue that failing to require universal masking violates the civil rights of students with disabilities by making the school environment unsafe for them.

States’ and school districts’ responses to the pandemic have varied widely, particularly over the contentious issue of masks. While some governors require all students to wear masks in school, others have prohibited districts from setting such mandates at the local level.

Mask policies have faced lawsuits from both sides: In states that ban mandates, like Texas and Virginia, parents have sued to give their local districts the authority to require masks. In some states with requirements for all districts, like Illinois, judges have ruled that governors have overstepped their authority in setting those policies.

In states that announced loosened requirements Monday, Republican lawmakers and some vocal parents said the changes should kick in sooner. Others stressed caution.

The New Jersey Education Association, which supported the state’s mask rule, urged the governor to continue monitoring data and to consider backtracking if rates surge before his change is set to take effect. The organization stressed that district leaders still have the authority to set their own policies.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also stressed the importance of local decisionmaking when reporters repeatedly pressed her on the issue in a briefing Monday. The CDC guidance remains in effect, and federal health officials will adjust it “when the science and data warrants,” she said.

“Our advice to every school district is to abide by public health guidelines,” Psaki said.

Factors in weighing mask policies

As Education Week reported last week, district leaders face myriad questions when deciding how to handle masking.

Mask requirements may be embedded into agreements with teachers unions or incorporated into other policies around issues like contact tracing. Juvenile vaccination rates nationwide trail those of adults, and some parents may not feel comfortable sending their children to in-person classes if their classmates are unmasked. In a January New York Times/Morning Consult poll, 48 percent of respondents said they strongly favored requiring masks in schools, while 19 percent said they “somewhat support” such requirements.

Here are some states to watch as the mask debate continues to unfold:

  • A school mask rule remains in place in Californiawhere health officials warned that dropping the requirement prematurely could lead to a surge of student absences, the Los Angeles Times reported.
  • In Illinois, a judge issued a temporary restraining order Feb. 5 decision prevents school districts statewide from requiring students to wear masks. The decision covers districts across the state but not Chicago Public Schools Because collectively-bargained agreements remain enforceable, like the one between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union. The state of Illinois announced it will appeal the decision.
  • New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said Monday that, while she may adjust masking requirements for businesses, she wants to monitor data on youth rates vaccination before she considers any changes to the school mask requirement. “I have a lot of metrics I’m using right now,” Hochul said, according to Spectrum News. “I’m not saying we won’t get to that place, it’s just premature to say.”
  • Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee, a Democrat, has extended the state’s school mask requirement until Feb. 14. Additionally, state lawmakers are set to decide Tuesday on whether the governor will be allowed to extend any pandemic-related restrictions after his emergency declaration expires.
  • In Virginia a judge issued a temporary restraining order Feb. 4 that prohibits enforcement of an executive order by new Gov. Youngkin, a Republican, that allows parents to opt their child out of any school mask mandate.

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