Sun | Jun 13, 2021
UNITED STATES

Schools ditch student mask requirements in growing numbers

Published:Thursday | May 13, 2021 | 12:15 AM
 In this Monday, March 29, 2021, file photo, Jenea Edwards, of the North Side, helps her son Elijah, 9, in the third grade, with his mask before heading into Manchester Academic Charter School on the first day of in-person learning via a hybrid schedule, i
In this Monday, March 29, 2021, file photo, Jenea Edwards, of the North Side, helps her son Elijah, 9, in the third grade, with his mask before heading into Manchester Academic Charter School on the first day of in-person learning via a hybrid schedule, in Pittsburgh.

As a lengthy, bitter fight over mask requirements for students neared its conclusion, the chairperson of a Florida school board announced that she would agree to lift a mandate that had been in place since September even though she preferred leaving it in place until the end of the academic year. Parents hurled insults in response.

“Communist! Democrat!,” opponents of making children wear masks in school shouted as board chair Wei Ueberschaer and the district superintendent explained at a May 3 meeting that they still considered masks advisable. “This is Santa Rosa County, America, not China!”

Moments later, the Santa Rosa school board voted unanimously to make masks optional for all grades effective immediately, joining dozens of other US communities in declaring that masks were or would soon no longer be mandatory for students.

The debates have been emotional and highly divisive around the country, in some cases leading to the involvement of police. A few beleaguered school boards, caught between the demands of anti-mask parents and the appeals of employee unions, eliminated student mask rules only to reverse or revise the decisions. Where many see a continued need to protect children who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19, opponents argue that masks make students uncomfortable and mandates impinge on freedom.

“The mask is a personal choice, and I wore it at the beginning, but I just decided that it wasn’t about the mask anymore,” said Cynthia Licharowicz, a Milton, Florida, parent who opposed Santa Rosa County’s rule. “So I decided to take it off, and I wanted my child to have the same choice.”

The dustups highlight competing risk narratives 14 months into the pandemic: Even as a number of US schools remain closed to minimise infections, districts in states from Alabama to Wyoming decided to ditch student mask mandates. Many more are likely to do the same before the next school year starts despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance that schools “should prioritize universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing”.

Some public health experts are alarmed. While the Food and Drug Administration this week approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children as young as 12, it is unlikely that many young adolescents will be vaccinated before the end of the academic year. Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows infection rates among US residents ages 14-17 are now higher than for all Americans while the rates among children six-13 are getting closer to the national average.

“We know that masks work to reduce transmission,” Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said. “This is really not the time to remove one of the best tools we have to reduce transmission.”

In Arkansas, a law will make it illegal by the end of the summer for schools or any government entity to require masks. On Wednesday in South Carolina, schools Superintendent Molly Spearman dropped a statewide student mask mandate but said Gov. Henry McMaster had no legal basis for an order letting parents choose for their children whether or not to wear masks. Spearman said districts could continue to apply their own mask rules.

Many parents in school districts where masks have become voluntary are concerned.

“I am so frustrated ... I don’t see any harm in wearing masks, and there is potential harm in not wearing a mask,” said Christie Black, the mother of a kindergartner and a third grader in Mesa, Arizona, who was puzzled by the decision of the state’s largest school district to make masks optional indoors starting earlier this month.

There is little US data about the spread of the coronavirus in schools where students didn’t wear masks since most reopened schools required them, said Adam Hersh, a professor of paediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah. Mask supporters point to worrying examples, including high transmission at a maskless summer camp in Georgia.

Evidence from earlier in the pandemic found children less likely than adults to be infected with the coronavirus and less likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19. The CDC has said that while schools haven’t been associated with substantial spread, outbreaks in schools not following infection-prevention measures “tend to result in increased transmission among teachers and school staff rather than among students”.