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Peer pressure is ending mask usage in schools

As more states make face coverings optional, students have begun to copy their unmasked classmates.

Ryan Miller, 7, swings at a park in Severance, Colo., near his home. He says he is one of the only children still wearing masks at school. (Autumn Parry for The Washington Post)
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Chelsea Ellingson hopes that her children keep masks in their backpacks.

She hopes that, once the eighth- and ninth-graders step inside their school buildings in Colorado’s Weld RE-4 school district, where masking is optional, they pull their masks from their backpacks and slide them over their noses and mouths.

But she doubts it. "Both of them have said none of their friends are wearing them,” said Ellingson, 36.

And, beyond gently reminding her children that she’d prefer they mask as they spill from the car, Ellingson is unwilling to press the issue. She said her children are maskless when they leave for school and maskless when they come home — and she has stopped asking questions about it. “They just don’t want to be the ones singled out for wearing it.”

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Children across America are facing a similar dilemma. After more than a year of required masking in many districts, school officials are rapidly rolling back rules to make face coverings optional, sometimes because their hands have been forced by politicians at the state level.

And in many places, according to interviews with students, parents and teachers, going mask-optional really means going maskless.

“It was pretty immediate,” said Elizabeth Miller, another mother in the Weld RE-4 district, which enrolls about 800 students and stopped requiring face coverings in mid-January. “It was ‘masks optional’ and masks were basically off.”

The debate over masking has raged throughout this school year, with proponents insisting that masks are key to keeping coronavirus cases down and classrooms open for in-person learning — while detractors say the pandemic is in its late stages, meaning it’s high time that parents get to decide what health policies are best for their children. Some also argue that face coverings interfere with children’s ability to learn and engage with peers.

In a reflection of the politicization of public health measures that America has seen throughout the pandemic, right-leaning districts and states were swifter than their left-leaning counterparts to roll back school mask mandates. But blue states are now joining suit, with the Democratic governors of New Jersey, Delaware, Oregon and Connecticut announcing this month that they will end their states’ school mask mandates. On Sunday, New York Governor Kathy Hochul joined the chorus, declaring that her state’s school mask madate will end Wednesday.

School mask mandates are falling in states across the country

Republican politicians, pundits and school leaders have touted mask-free schooling as vital to children’s social and academic development. They have argued that children must appear maskless in class. But parents on all sides of the political spectrum are leaving the decision up to their students, which in many cases leads to children repudiating face coverings both for convenience and to fit in with their peers.

Even in households where parents — typically more liberal ones — are requesting that children keep wearing masks, mothers and fathers acknowledge they have little power to ensure obedience in the classroom. Most teachers, meanwhile, say they are prohibited from even talking with students about the touchy topic of masking, much less checking whether their parents want them to remain masked. According to communications from school officials reviewed by The Washington Post, districts in many states are adopting similar policies in a bid to avoid in-classroom conflict and potential legal action.

In Georgia, Lauren Ivey, who teaches AP Government and debate, said her district, Fulton County Schools, went mask-optional a few weeks ago. The first days after the policy change, only “a slow trickle” of students showed up maskless, she said.

But that soon turned into a flood, said Ivey, 32, and nowadays most students she passes in the hallways are maskless. In her classes, the split appears to be narrower: about 60 percent are wearing masks and 40 percent are maskless, she said.

An analysis from Education Week found that, as of mid-February, 10 states have either banned school districts from issuing mask mandates or are attempting to do so, but are temporarily caught in legal challenges. Just 11 states and the District of Columbia still require masks in schools, Ed Week reported — and of those, seven states plan to end their mask mandates by March 31. That marks a significant decrease from the high of 18 states that maintained masking mandates earlier this year, per Education Week.

Tracking by the data firm Burbio shows that the percentage of the country’s 500 largest school districts requiring masks has dropped steadily every month since November, falling from about 70 percent on Nov. 5 to just slightly more than 50 percent as of Feb. 18.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said states are dropping mask mandates because they are feeling political pressure to do so. He warned that the rollbacks are a step in the wrong direction, because they will lead to a spike in infections.

“If you’re going to make it optional and a lot of kids aren’t wearing it, then a lot of the kids aren’t going to want to wear it,” he said. “And that’s fine if you’re in an environment where 80 to 90 percent of kids are vaccinated and infection rates are low — but it’s not if that is not the case.”

Ivey says she has not noticed any bullying between students over the issue, and she’s seen just one awkward interaction. A masked student commented on a classmate’s bare face, leading to the reply — delivered “with attitude,” Ivey said — that it’s now okay to go without a mask at school.

Nonetheless, a persistent social pressure to unmask has built up, Ivey said, even in liberal leaning Fulton County, where 73 percent of whose residents voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. She feels it herself and these days often remains unmasked at school — even though she has an unvaccinated 18-month-old child, is scared of bringing the virus home, and continues to mask in public places, restaurants and grocery stores.

“I went from religiously wearing one, to wearing one most of the time, to wearing one if I’m within six feet of students but pretty much not wearing one when I’m not,” Ivey said.

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In Kentucky, Steve Clem said the decision of his kids’ school district to go mask-optional on Feb. 14 led within days to 90 percent of students showing up to class maskless, according to his children and pictures he has seen on social media. Clem has a first- and a third-grader enrolled in Oldham County Public Schools, a red district whose student body numbers more than 12,000.

Clem, 39, who identifies as conservative, said he believes masks impair children’s ability to learn. The face coverings also place a burden on parents, Clem said, forcing them to constantly run dirty masks through the laundry — a problem in particular for parents of young children, because little kids’ face coverings are “really, really gross” by the time they come home from school.

For all these reasons, Clem was overjoyed to hear the Oldham school system would no longer require masks. But, determined not to pressure his children, he told the two boys they could choose whether to wear masks at school.

His older son at first kept wearing a mask occasionally, Clem said, mostly because he was used to it: “When you’re young,” he said, “you can build habits pretty easily." Both children have since dropped their masks, and the whole household feels happier, Clem said.

“They talk about just being able to sit with their friends and laugh,” Clem said of his children. “My kids are much happier without masks. They are able to socialize, they are able to learn.”

In other places, students have been slower to abandon masks.

In Virginia, where the new Republican governor has pushed school districts to unmask children for the past month, the state legislature this week passed a law requiring all school districts to go mask-optional by March 1. Some districts had already enforced such a rule in compliance with a controversial executive order issued by Gov. Glenn Youngkin on his first day in office — including Clarke County Public Schools, a district of 1,800.

In the three weeks since mask-optionality went into effect, said Katie Kerr-Hobert, who sits on the board for Clarke County Public Schools and has two children in the system, a majority of students have continued to mask.

“I’ve been really surprised,” she said. “I think a large part of that is because they know it’s the right thing to do to protect themselves but also to protect our community."

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And in Virginia’s Chesapeake City Public Schools, teacher Amanda Lambert said the vast majority of children at her high school — somewhere between 85 and 90 percent — are continuing to mask even though the district of 40,000 gave families the choice to unmask starting Jan. 25.

She noted that her school enrolls many low-income children and is predominantly Black and Hispanic. She said she has heard from other teachers in more affluent, Whiter schools that most children there are going maskless, Lambert said.

“It’s a very interesting disparity," she said, "especially that the schools where you have lower incomes tend to be more masked than the schools where maybe mom is a stay-at-home mom or they don’t face economic issues.”

Tiffany Shawl, a mother in Ohio, said she has noticed a divide over masking emerge among students along different demographic lines: political ones.

Shawl sends three children, a high school senior, a seventh-grader and a sixth-grader, to Xenia Community Schools, which enrolls 4,600 students in an area that leans conservative. She said the majority of children in the school system stopped wearing masks “pretty quick” after the district made masks optional on Feb. 9.

That was especially true in an electrical wiring class her eldest son takes, she said. The class is dominated by more right-wing boys: “the masculine, macho boys, they’re all more Trump-supporting,” she said, while her son is “a little more left, personality wise.” Her son told her the other electrical-wiring students often make fun of mask-wearing.

“So the minute it went mask-optional, he chose not to wear it even though he would have preferred to,” said Shawl, who spoke on condition that The Post use her maiden name, not her married name, to protect her son from backlash at school. “Because he didn’t want to get picked on for it.”

In Colorado’s Weld RE-4 district, mother Jana Wygal said she, too, has noticed disturbing political overtones to the masking landscape. Her elementary-schooler, middle-schooler and high-schooler are some of the only students still wearing masks, she said, and peer and political pressure is mounting to shed them. Her oldest child has been called a “sheep,” she said, and other students have said his carbon dioxide levels will increase until they cause him to “pass out and die.”

Last fall, before the district lifted its mask mandate, some students in the district staged a walkout in protest of masking while anti-mask parents massed in a parking lot outside her children’s middle and high schools.

“There were adults in the parking lot, screaming, yelling, there were ‘don’t tread on me’ flags,” said Wygal, 45. “That was a little bit of a scary day for my kids.”

Elsewhere in the Weld RE-4 district, 9-year-old Evan Miller, 7-year-old Ryan Miller and 4-year-old Calvin Miller said they are some of the only students wearing masks, but that they have no plans to stop wearing them.

“Our great-grandma died of covid,” Evan said, “and we don’t want anybody else going through that.”

The great-grandmother, Ann Miller, died in July 2020 after a long stint in a hospital that was overcrowded with coronavirus patients, the boys’ mother, Elizabeth Miller, said. It devastated their family. She does not want her children to unmask at school until next academic year at earliest, she said. Miller spoke on the condition that The Washington Post use her maiden name in lieu of her married name, for fear of harassment.

“I mean honestly, I’m kind of proud of my kids at this point, because they have been the only ones in masks all year long,” she said. “And it takes a lot of courage to be the only one in a group doing something like that, where it’s so obvious that you’re different.”

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