As states lift mask rules, school leaders feel pressure

FILE— A summer school student wears a protective mask, due to concerns of the COVID-19 virus pandemic, while listening to instruction, at the E.N. White School in Holyoke, Mass., on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021. Students and staff at public schools in Massachusetts will no longer be required to wear face coverings while indoors starting Feb. 28, state officials said Wednesday Feb. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

As some of the last statewide mask mandates in the U.S. near an end, decisions about whether students and teachers should continue to wear masks in school are shifting to local leaders, who are caught in the middle of one of the most combustible issues of the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, this is an issue where you are not going to make everybody happy,” said Jeffrey Solan, school superintendent in Cheshire, Connecticut. “We can’t allow those individual passions to decide the debate.”

The question of masks in schools has been so contentious in much of the country that school board meetings have devolved into shouting matches, scuffles and arrests. Protesters have shown up outside administrators’ homes. And slates of pro- and anti-mask candidates have run for school board seats in an attempt to shape policies.

In the hours after Connecticut’s governor announced the state’s mask requirement would end later this month, Solan was peppered Monday with messages from families who feel masks are critical for protecting students and from others who have long been opposed.

If the decision had to be made right away, he said, his district in New Haven’s suburbs would continue to require masks, based on metrics developed with local health officials, including vaccination and infection rates.

Some school officials around the country welcomed state-imposed mandates for sparing them from having to make unpopular decisions, especially early in the pandemic. But many superintendents say they now have the tools to decide whether masks should be required, and they welcome the ability to adapt as needed.

The governors of Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon this week announced plans to lift mask requirements in schools by the end of February or March, as COVID-19’s omicron surge subsides. Massachusetts joined the list on Wednesday.

The states are among a dozen that have kept mask mandates in schools as others have dropped them, according to the nonpartisan National Academy for State Health Policy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends masks for students and staff inside buildings, leaving district leaders to weigh the federal guidance against what they have seen in their own schools and heard from the parents, teachers and students.

Some districts, including Philadelphia; Wichita, Kansas; and Albuquerque, New Mexico, have continued to require masks despite the end of state mandates.

Many others have made them optional.

West Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Superintendent Wesley Watts said it was comforting at the outset that all schools required masks, but that was then. His district stopped requiring masks at the end of October, once school systems were allowed to opt out of a state mandate as long as they enforced quarantines in line with CDC recommendations.

“Just knowing the pulse of our community, they were ready for it,” Watts said.

School superintendents generally prefer flexibility to make their own decisions on mask requirements based on infection numbers and vaccination rates, said Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association.

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