Mask mandates are back as K-12 leaders fight to keep classrooms open

'We are moving from emergency response to long-term management of a virus that is poised to become endemic,' superintendent says.
By: | January 10, 2022
Many districts that had planned to go mask-optional for 2022 are changing their COVID policies.

After many had loosened COVID precautions in the weeks before omicron struck, districts are again requiring face coverings as administrations do all they can to try to maintain in-person learning through the latest wave of the pandemic.

“We know this is a change to what our teachers, staff, students and families were expecting,” Superintendent David Ulrich of Kirkwood School District in Missouri told the community about reinstating a mask mandate. “Without requiring masks in our schools, more students could be excluded from class due to exposure and we would not be honoring our commitment to maximizing in-person learning.”

The district had planned to go mask-optional after winter break but Ulrich cited waning immunity of staff or students who were vaccinated more than six months ago as a reason to forgo that plan, along with a steep increase in positive cases and hospitalizations in the St. Louis region and limited testing. “This makes it difficult to ensure our students and staff can be tested in a timely manner. This is a primary tool in reducing the risk of transmission in our schools,” Ulrich said of the latter. “If it has the potential to be less available, we want to ensure we are using the other layers of effective mitigation methods.”

Kirkwood schools will review cases each day to determine when they might be able to discontinue the mask mandate. OIn the other side of Missouri, the Kansas City Council on Jan. 6 reinstated a mask mandate for schools, KCUR.org reported.

In Montana, masks are strongly encouraged, but not required, in all grade levels in Great Falls Public Schools. Masks are also recommended in Helena Public Schools due to low case counts, enhanced rapid testing capability, the availability of vaccines for kids aged 5-11 and low local hospitalization rates, Superintendent Rex Weltz said in a message to the community. “Day-by-day, we are moving from emergency response to long-term management of a virus that is poised to become endemic,” Weltz said. “If you haven’t already, I respectfully encourage you to talk with your pediatrician about the risks and benefits of vaccination. It is our safest and fastest route to a return to normal.”

Masks are quickly becoming the norm again

One of Georgia’s largest districts, Fulton County Schools, is requiring masks through at least Jan. 21. “Fortunately, there is a light at the end of the tunnel of this wave,” the district says on its website. “Health officials have predicted the peak of the current surge will happen soon, which indicates the number of positive cases should decline quickly.”

Also in Georgia, DeKalb County School District has mandated masks for the second semester of the 2021-22 school year but face coverings are optional in the Dooly County School System as of Jan. 4.

In Arkansas, Fayetteville Public Schools is requiring all persons on all campuses to wear masks until further notice. The district’s COVID policy required reimposing masks because its schools exceeded 30 or more active cases for two consecutive weeks, Superintendent John L Colbert said on the district’s website.

In Utah, Salt Lake County on Jan. 7 mandated masks in all public spaces, including in school buildings. “Although COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective, and widely available, 40 percent of all Salt Lake County residents remain unvaccinated,” the county’s order says. “This high percentage of unvaccinated residents will likely result in additional preventable hospitalizations and further strain Salt Lake County’s medical systems, the major source of hospital beds for the entire state.”

In Texas, which has seen months of disputes between administrators and state officials over masks, Richardson ISD just imposed a mask mandate until at least Jan. 31 due to rising COVID cases.

“This decision was made because of an unprecedented rise in positive cases among students and employees,” Interim Superintendent Tabitha Branum said. “We continue to focus on the goal of keeping our schools open for in-person teaching and learning, and this is a necessary step if we hope to keep our students learning in school.”

In Alabama, Madison City Schools reimposed its mask mandate on Jan. 4, until further notice. In Nebraska, Lincoln Public Schools reinstated its mask mandate on Jan. 4 due to rising COVID infections. Westside Community Schools is also requiring face coverings again due to increasing cases among children.

And several schools in the Kansas City, Kansas suburbs have reinstated mask mandates, the Shawnee Mission Post reported.

Click here for a more comprehensive list of districts that have changed their masking policy over the last few weeks.