Several Democratic-led states are putting their indoor mask mandates out to pasture as the number of COVID-19 cases goes down nationwide. The move comes amid growing public backlash, including among the fully vaccinated that are anxious to get back to life as normal.
However, the decision has created tension for many school districts, leaving teachers and administrators to decide whether or not masks are needed in the classroom.
While some districts criticized the sudden change in policy, some have stated that they now have the tools to determine whether masks should be required, and they have appreciated the ability to adapt as needed.
“Unfortunately, this is an issue where you are not going to make everybody happy,” Jeffrey Solan, school superintendent in Cheshire, Connecticut. “We can’t allow those individual passions to decide the debate.”
In many parts of the country, the issue of masks in schools has become so contentious that school board meetings have devolved into shouting matches and arrests, superintendents have seen protesters outside their homes, and slates of candidates — pro- and anti-mask — have run for school board seats in an attempt to shape policies.
The news comes as the seven-day average of COVID-19 cases in the United States fell 44% from the previous week to 247,300 cases per day, according to CDC director Rochelle Walensky.
Average hospital admissions were down 25% from last week to around 13,000 per day, while average deaths were down 3% from the previous week to 2,400 per day.
The relaxation of masking rules indicated a political willingness to relieve pandemic-weary residents of their emergency status and shift toward treating the virus as a normal part of life.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced on Wednesday that the state’s mask mandate will be repealed, but that masking rules will remain in effect in schools for the time being.
JB Pritzker, the governor of Illinois, made a similar announcement, removing the requirement for most face coverings in public places but keeping them in place in schools.
The governor of Cheshire, Connecticut, announced that its mandate would expire later this month.
The decision elicited reactions from both parents who believe masks are essential for student safety and those who have long been opposed.
Similarly, as the COVID-19′s Omicron surge fades, the governors of Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and Oregon announced this week plans to lift mandates in schools by the end of February or March. Massachusetts was added to the list on Wednesday by state leaders.
The CDC continues to recommend masks for teachers and staff inside buildings, leaving district leaders to weigh federal recommendations against what they have seen in their own schools and heard from parents and teachers.
According to Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, school superintendents prefer the flexibility to make their own decisions on mask requirements based on virus infection numbers and vaccination rates.
“What we’ve seen in this country is that the pandemic and the level of infections vary greatly depending on where you are,” he explained. “If you create a blanket situation in which everyone is going to have to do this, whether they wear a mask or not, you’re not taking into account the differences that exist within your own region.”
He said that in a number of states, including Maryland and Virginia, districts have been dropping and reimposing mask requirements in order to adapt to the most recent virus numbers.
Some states that have continued to push for mask mandates are facing legal challenges as well as public outcry.