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The great school mask debate

The delta variant makes for a chaotic start to the school year

First grade students at Addison Mizner School in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday Associated Press/Photo by Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel

The great school mask debate

Kelly Lepsig is trying to sell her house and move to a school district that requires masks. Lepsig, 41, taught high school English in North Carolina, but quit last year due to her mother’s health struggles combined with what Lepsig felt were lax COVID-19 precautions at her school. Her mom is on hospice for brain cancer, and Lepsig worries about her fourth-grade son returning to a school that doesn’t require masks: “If he gets quarantined, I can’t go see my dying mom.”

As schools begin the 2021-2022 school year, many districts see disagreement over school mask policies, and some states even face legal battles.

According to the data collection company Burbio, 11 states have passed mask mandates for schools: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington. But eight states have ruled that schools cannot require masks of students and teachers: Texas, Florida, Iowa, Arizona, Utah, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and South Carolina. New Mexico requires all elementary school staff and students to mask up, while face coverings are optional for vaccinated secondary school teachers and students.

Last year during the pandemic, research showed that in-person schools did not significantly contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in communities. Most schools had rigid mask and social distance policies in place and planned to relax those rules as the pandemic abated this year. But the spread of the more contagious coronavirus delta variant has called those plans into question. School leaders must make decisions without knowing—because the variant is so new—how delta will affect their students and staff. They must also consider the input of scientists, teachers, students, and parents—many of whom have differing, strong opinions about the best way to proceed.

Last week, the Orange County, Calif., Board of Education voted to sue California Gov. Gavin Newsom over his order requiring masks. Newsom also announced Wednesday that California would be the first state to require all teachers and school staff to either receive the coronavirus vaccine or undergo COVID-19 testing weekly. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has banned mask mandates, but the superintendent of Dallas schools said on Monday that it would require face coverings for students and teachers.

In Florida, a few districts have passed mask mandates in spite of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order against them, though Florida parents who think their school’s mask requirement is not in their child’s best interest can now receive private school vouchers. Parents of children with medical conditions sued DeSantis on Friday.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a law against mask mandates in April but publicly said he regretted that decision as coronavirus cases climbed recently in the state. Two bills that could have changed the law died in committee on Thursday, but state Judge Tim Fox overturned the law on Friday. One district reported that, since school began the previous week, 949 staff and students had been quarantined.

In many of the remaining 30 states, the mask question is left to individual districts. The school board for North Carolina’s largest school district, Wake County, voted unanimously last week to require masks for all students and staff, whether vaccinated or not.

Rebecca Pendley, 35, lives just outside of Raleigh and has four kids ages 7 and younger with a baby due in January. Pendley, who works from home part-time, went to several recent Wake County school board meetings. “I don’t feel like they listened to parents,” she said. Pendley said masks’ effectiveness hasn’t been proven, and she believes parents should decide if their children wear masks. The World Health Organization states masks alone do not stop COVID-19 from spreading, but combined with social distancing, handwashing, and other public health measures, they can make a difference.

Pendley pointed out that her children’s ages are some of the most formative years for social skills. Because of the lower COVID-19 case numbers for young children—though she understands some children have become critically ill—whenever possible, she doesn’t require her kids to wear masks. “Your childhood has such a huge impact on you, whether it’s positive or negative,” she said, pointing out that COVID-19 has affected her soon-to-be second grader’s life since his kindergarten year. “My goal is to make COVID as less of a blip on the radar as possible.”

On Thursday, Heather Jablonski’s school had a “meet the teacher day.” Jablonski, 50, a high school algebra teacher in Lake County Schools in Florida estimated about half of the attending students wore masks. She has an autoimmune disease and is concerned about her safety as well as the safety of other teachers with health concerns, especially teachers in elementary schools: “None of those kids have had the vaccine, and none of those kids have to wear a mask.”

Private schools are also deciding on mask policies. The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) has 1,600 member schools in the United States. Spokeswoman Myra McGovern said that as of July 26, all of its members planned to open for in-person learning this fall. NAIS is re-conducting a poll since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its most recent guidance, but an earlier poll showed a higher percentage of schools favoring masks for younger students than the number of schools requiring masks for all students.

Lepsig hopes people appreciate the work teachers are doing right now and said she would return to teaching if masks were required. “I respect everybody’s decision. I really do,” she said. “I just wish that people would respect mine, as well.”

Pendley is glad that her daughter will have the same kindergarten teacher this year that her son had, and she said she’s “tolerating” masks. “I feel like public school has just changed a lot since we grew up,” she said. “I think I’m just kind of coming to terms with that.”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

Esther Eaton

Esther formerly reported on politics for WORLD from Washington. She is a World Journalism Institute and Liberty University graduate and enjoys bringing her parakeets on reporting trips.


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