Schools Reinstate Mask Mandates as COVID-19 Cases Rise

On April 11, public schools in Providence, R.I, made face masks optional instead of mandatory for students and teachers—celebrating the move as a “positive milestone” brought about by declining COVID-19 cases among students and community support for a more lenient policy.

Providence was one of the many schools that required masks in March to combat rising COVID-19 rates. It is part of an overall spike in cases of Omicron subvariants.

The Providence school district tracked about 60 COVID-19 cases per day last week among staff and students—a dramatic increase from a low of about 10 cases per day in March and early April, according to district data.

“The additional mitigation layer of masking will help us manage this new COVID surge and keep more students in the classroom where they learn best,” Javier Montañez, superintendent of Providence schools, said in a statement on Monday.

Philadelphia schools also resumed a mask mandate “to help protect everyone’s health and well-being as COVID-19 case counts continue to rise in the Philadelphia area,” superintendent William Hite said in a statement. Brookline (Mass.) The indoor mask policy was reinstated in all towns-owned buildings and public schools. The decision came after public health officials compared COVID-19 cases in Brookline public schools to cases in other Massachusetts school districts that had maintained mask requirements and concluded that “a temporary reinstatement would be an important mitigation measure to limit disease spread and reduce disruptions due to student and staff absenteeism.”

Boston schools for the disabled, for instance, still require students to wear masks. Officials from the City of Boston said that they plan to lift the school mask requirement once the number of COVID-19-related cases in the area drops below 10 cases per 100,000. Presently, the positivity rate stands at 54.5 per 100,000.

However, only a few schools have reintroduced the mask requirement. Just 12 of the country’s 500 largest school districts (2.4%) are requiring masks as of Tuesday, according to a tracker by Burbio, which aggregates school and community calendars and has been monitoring districts’ pandemic policies.

These shifts in school policy come as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have increased in many parts of the U.S. At a briefing on May 18, federal health officials said about one third of people in the U.S. live in areas with “medium or high” levels of COVID-19 spread, and should consider masking indoors.

In those areas with high risk, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said, “we urge local leaders to encourage use of prevention strategies, like masking in public indoor settings and increasing access to testing and to treatment.”

As some schools bring back mask requirements, they’re hoping to prevent transmission and to limit further disruption from school closures or staff absences.

“Wearing masks continues to be a really good, low-cost, pretty low-burden exercise, especially when it is applied in a targeted manner, potentially like a school-based setting,” says Brandon Guthrie, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, who has written about pandemic safety measures within schools. “It’s a reasonable thing for schools that don’t want to have transmission linked to school settings to use masks as an added level of protection, partly to protect the health of their students and their families, but also to reduce just the disruption to schools.”

The school mask requirement has been controversial ever since the start of the pandemic. There have been numerous lawsuits. Opponents of mask regulations argue the government is too involved. Parents of children with medical conditions or disabilities that could make them very sick from COVID-19 exposure have complained they can’t safely go to school while other kids are not wearing masks. Eliminating mask mandates would violate students’ rights to public education for those with disabilities, they claim.

Recent surveys have revealed that opinions about masks are divided by political parties. According to Kaiser Family Foundation surveys, 66% said that K-12 schools should have all staff wear masks. 78% thought there should be no mask requirement at all.

Guthrie suggests that it may not make sense for schools to advocate universal masking given the current level of polarization in areas where there will be strong resistance to reinstating mandated masks.

“We need to be thoughtful about promoting preventative measures that are going to be the most effective at the least cost,” Guthrie says, noting that in communities where there has been strong opposition to mask mandates, it might be more worthwhile to try to get more people vaccinated and boosted, instead of reigniting the battle over masks. Recent studies have proven that vaccinations provide protection from severe diseases such as COVID-19.

“It is clearly helping to significantly reduce the burden of hospitalization and deaths,” Guthrie says, of vaccination against COVID-19. “And ultimately, from a public health perspective, those are the things that matter most.”

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