The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As new school year looms, debates over mask mandates stir anger and confusion

School leaders contend with conflicting health guidance, plus pressure from state leaders and frustrated parents

Demonstrators outside a Hillsborough County School Board meeting July 27 in Tampa. (Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

New federal guidelines prompted by a surge in coronavirus cases have left school leaders across the country embroiled in debates over whether to require masks in schools, muddling a long-sought return to normalcy for millions of children.

The wrangling over masks, considered by pediatricians and epidemiologists to be one of the most effective ways to stop school spread, has turned deeply personal and political, fueling vitriol at school board meetings that have left board members fearing for their safety. Several Republican-led states have barred school districts from requiring masks, threatening to fine school leaders or cut state funding if they attempt it.

Caught in the fray are school leaders, who are forced to again navigate constantly shifting pandemic conditions, conflicting guidance on how to manage them and political fights — all while trying to craft policies that will keep students safe and buildings open. Because despite the deep divide over masks, there is a virtual consensus that it is critical to get children back to face-to-face learning.

“Politics play into it,” Dan Nerelli, superintendent of the Chichester School District outside Philadelphia, said of the national climate. In his district, masks were optional during the summer and no decision has been made yet on the fall. “People don’t want to say it, but it’s a hot topic, and as superintendents we get caught in the middle of it.”

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Nearly everyone agrees that children should be back in classrooms, a goal that is now being threatened by the delta variant and the mask debate. Parents in both camps — those who support mask mandates and those who oppose them — are pulling their children from brick-and-mortar schools in districts where they disagree with masking policies.

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A rash of cases among students and staffers in the Ash Fork School District in Arizona, which opened its doors last week for the new school year, forced the school system to close buildings Wednesday. In a video, Superintendent Seth Staples pleaded with parents for patience. He noted, too, that while masks were recommended, the state barred him from requiring them.

A spike in coronavirus cases — and a critical shortage of hospital beds — pushed Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) to declare a state of emergency and to call the legislature back in to session to reconsider the state’s ban on mask mandates.

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance urging everyone in school buildings to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, a response to growing concerns over the highly contagious delta variant. That was a shift from guidance issued just three weeks prior, when the agency said only unvaccinated people in school buildings needed masks.

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Several school districts, including in New Orleans and Georgia’s Gwinnett County, took heed and will require universal masking in schools for the coming school year.

GOP leaders balked.

“This is just another example of the Biden-Harris administration’s inability to effectively confront the COVID-19 pandemic,” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) said in a statement. Ducey, who banned schools from implementing mask mandates and then helped make it state law, said that requiring masks even for the vaccinated would lead people to wrongly believe that vaccine is not effective.

The fights over mask mandates and other pandemic adjustments have taken a scary turn in some school districts. Paul Imhoff, who is president of a nationwide association for school superintendents and heads the Upper Arlington school district in Ohio, said some of his colleagues have told him that they have stationed armed security guards outside their homes, worried that rancor will turn into violence.

Ducey is one of several GOP governors who have backed efforts to ban or discourage school leaders from implementing mask mandates, saying they want to leave decisions about masking up to parents. Their actions have drawn criticism from those who say they are ignoring public health guidance in order to play to their base of supporters.

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Some opponents of mask mandates rely on fringe science to back their claims that masks are ineffective. Others say that they are concerned masks will leave children traumatized and impede their learning and that the disease poses little threat to children — though they can still spread it to adults.

And many argue that the public health guidelines infringe on their personal liberty.

John Kuhn, superintendent of the small, rural Mineral Wells Independent School District in Texas, said he understands why some parents oppose mask mandates. There are those who oppose any pandemic restrictions and worry they will again lead to a full-scale shutdown, even though public health officials have said the opposite — that mask-wearing could prevent shutdowns.

“Will covid-19 spread more readily if government doesn’t require masks? Yes. Is it dangerous? Yes. I don’t think school people are ignorant of these realities or deny them,” Kuhn said. “There are no easy answers here. Basically, a school’s masking policy has to reflect its community’s masking expectations.”

In states where mask mandates have been banned, it means local school leaders have to choose between breaking the law or ignoring CDC guidelines. Texas has threatened school leaders with fines if they attempt to implement mask requirements, and in Arizona and South Carolina, schools can lose state funding if they defy the bans.

In Austin, where Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued an executive order banning mask mandates, school leaders are preparing to accommodate children whose parents will not send them to school alongside unmasked students and staffers. The Austin Independent School District recently expanded its virtual offerings, even though the state is not paying for it.

“We know that masks work, and kids were great at wearing masks,” said Jason Stanford, spokesman for the school district. “We would absolutely be mandating masks if we were allowed to.”

In Florida, where cases of the delta variant are rising sharply, a showdown appears to be looming between Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a staunch opponent of mask mandates, and at least one school district that this week reversed its fall mask-optional policy, opting to require masks for all.

“There is no way in good conscience that I could bring anybody back into the school environment, on the bus, the cafeteria, and not have a mask mandate,” said Rosalind Osgood, chair of the Broward County School Board.

Opponents of the mask mandate had gathered at the school board meeting Tuesday, burning masks. The board was forced to adjourn early because they refused to wear masks inside the building, CBS4 in Miami reported.

On Wednesday, opponents arrived armed with what they said was evidence that masks do not work. One mother lifted her young daughter to the microphone to address the members.

“I don’t want to wear it, because I can’t breath,” she said.

In Iowa City, parents asked the school district to educate masked and unmasked students separately, since the state barred it from passing a mask mandate. “The parents, rightly so, are trying to find clever ways to work around the laws and still keep their kids safe,” said Shawn Eyestone, president of the school board. “But the problem is, logistically, it’s almost impossible.”

The debate has also illuminated a stark racial divide in the pandemic. Anti-mask protesters in many places are mostly White. In large urban districts and majority-Black districts, the mask mandates have been largely uncontroversial.

It’s a contrast that has been reflected in polls. In May, more than three-quarters of Black, Hispanic and Asian parents said they needed mask requirements to feel safe sending their children back in to classrooms, compared with 53 percent of White parents, according to research done by the Rand Corp.

New York, Chicago and Los Angeles never lifted their universal masking requirements. And when Clayton County, Ga., outside Atlanta, decided to expand its mask mandate, school leaders heard little fuss.

“Many of our families are front-line workers. [Our community] was hit very hard,” Superintendent Morcease Beasley said. “That has contributed to us here in Clayton County hearing little pushback, because those families have experienced the impact of this pandemic firsthand.”