America’s schools confront the polarizing pandemic as they decide mask rules for new school year

Published 10:19 pm Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Students in Wichita, Kansas, public schools can ditch the masks when classes begin. Detroit public schools will probably require them unless everyone in a room is vaccinated. In Pittsburgh, masks will likely be required regardless of vaccination status. And in some states, schools cannot mandate face coverings under any circumstances.

With COVID-19 cases soaring nationwide, school districts across the U.S. are yet again confronting the realities of a polarized country and the lingering pandemic as they navigate mask requirements, vaccine rules and social distancing requirements for the fast-approaching new school year.

The spread of the delta variant and the deep political divisions over the outbreak have complicated decisions in districts from coast to coast. Some conservative states, lawmakers have banned districts from requiring masks despite outcry from medical professionals. Schools are weighing a variety of plans to manage junior high and middle school classrooms filled with both vaccinated and unvaccinated students.

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“I’m so frustrated that it’s become a political issue because it shouldn’t be. It’s science,” said Mary Tuttle, who operates an Indianapolis in-home day care center and hopes the city’s schools require masks for her daughters.

She worries that the delta variant could lead to a return to virtual learning, which caused her 10-year-old daughter to become depressed and anxious last year. Another daughter will turn 12 six days after starting 6th grade and will be vaccinated as soon as possible.

Adding to the concerns is a rise in cases overall — sharply in some states, including Arkansas, which won’t let schools require masks. Public health researchers on Tuesday called Arkansas’ rapidly climbing infections and hospitalizations a “raging forest fire,” and the state’s top health official warned of significant future outbreaks in schools.

Arkansas leads the country in new cases per capita, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University researchers, and it has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with only 35% of the population fully vaccinated.

In Mississippi, the leading health official said Tuesday that intensive care units are full in 13 hospitals because of a surge in cases, and he provided an ominous warning in one of the least vaccinated states in the country: “Y’all, we’re going to have a rough few weeks,” Dr. Thomas Dobbs said.

Weekly tallies by the American Academy of Pediatrics based on state reports show that COVID-19 cases in kids increased nationally in July after a couple of months of declines. The most recent data shows a 1% increase from July 1 to July 15, representing 43,000 additional cases.

The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday recommended universal masking in schools, even for those who are vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month recommended mask-wearing indoors only for students and staff who are not fully vaccinated.

The vaccine has not been approved for children under 12. If it shown to be safe and effective for younger ages, vaccine manufacturers may seek emergency authorization sometime this fall or winter.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the fact that some states refuse to allow mask requirements “is just plain wrong.” She said the organization has embraced recommendations from the CDC.

But school officials say masking decisions have been complicated by conflicting advice from public health officials.

“It’s frustrating. Parents hear that these are recommendations, and it becomes a delicate dance” because of differing opinions, said Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Community Schools, outside Detroit.

He probably will recommend that the school board make masking optional, although he worries about potential outbreaks because people are gathering for sporting events, family reunions and other activities.

“It would be very helpful if there was agreement among the medical community what the approach should be,” Matthews said. When everyone wore masks last year, “it created a sense of community, a sense that we’re all in this together. Now it ends up dividing people.”

That’s part of the reason the academy recommended universal masking in schools, said Dr. Sonja O’Leary, chair of the academy’s Council on School Health.

“People just wanted it to be clearer, masks or no masks,’’ said O’Leary. She said data show COVID-19 infections have not been rampant in U.S. schools, but “we know masks do curb transmission.” What’s more, keeping track of who has had shots and who has not may be tough for schools.

School districts that can set their own policies are taking different approaches.

In Detroit public schools, everyone will likely be required to wear a mask unless an entire room is vaccinated. Officials are developing an identification system, perhaps by wearing lanyards, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said.

In Pittsburgh, administrators are proposing that all public school students and staff be required to wear masks indoors to protect younger students and because of “concerns around unknowns from the variant,” spokeswoman Ebony R. Pugh said. Universal masking also protects the privacy of older students who have not been vaccinated, she said.

In Kansas, most schoolchildren and teachers will not be required to wear masks. The state’s largest district, Wichita, made masks optional starting July 6 and surveyed parents before announcing its reopening plan, said Wichita Public Schools spokeswoman Susan Arensman.

“A lot of them, their big talking points were about the emotional well-being of students and staff,” Arensman said. “They still wanted kids to be safe, but they also wanted kids to be back to normal.”

In Templeton, California, Jenny Grinager said she does not like masks and got an exemption for her 8-year-old son because he has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. She said her son struggles to communicate with people who wear masks because he’s unable to see their facial expressions. Last year, he said he didn’t have any friends in class and was lonely.

“For him, it is the relationship, the interaction that causes him to remember who somebody is,” said Grinager, who also does not believe vaccination is necessary. She notes that children are less likely to get seriously ill with COVID-19, and she has not been vaccinated.

In Madison, Wisconsin, Sarah Jedd plans to send her 15- and 13-year old sons back to classes because both are vaccinated, but she will home-school her 9-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter if masks are not required. The district is expected to announce its decision later this week.

“I’m just really concerned about (them) being inside a school building with lots and lots of kids with no masks on while they’re too young to be vaccinated,” Jedd said.

Jacky Frechette, who has a son who’s vaccinated and a 4-year-old who isn’t, said every Madison student should be required to wear a mask rather than having different rules for the vaccinated and unvaccinated, especially when people can so easily lie about it.

“It’s sad (wearing masks) has become so divisive that we’ve put our political thoughts and feelings above what experts say,” she said.