Wave of respiratory illnesses forces mask mandates in districts across the U.S.

Multiple studies show masks are preventing COVID and other respiratory illnesses.

New school mask mandates are popping up in districts across the country as educators enter 2023 grappling with a relentless wave of COVID, flu, and RSV. In the days after students have returned from winter break trips and other social activities, multiple administrators are announcing new mask requirements to block rapidly spreading respiratory illnesses.

Ann Arbor Public Schools in Michigan has mandated well-fitting masks until Jan. 20 in an effort to prevent the disruptions caused by school closures and student illness, Superintendent Jeanice Kerr Swift said in a message to the community this week. Ann Arbor administrators are prioritizing in-school learning as they monitor daily absentee and illness levels.

Chelsea Public Schools near Boston on Monday also began requiring masks for the first time since April 2022, when the school board warned the mandates would return if community transmission levels spiked. Suffolk County, home to Chelsea Public Schools, is now designated as “High Risk” for COVID-19 transmission, Superintendent Almi G. Abeyta said.

Administrators at Arlington Public Schools on the other side of Boston have been strongly encouraging mask-wearing since the end of winter break on Jan. 3. Superintendent Elizabeth Homan told YourArlington.com that about 75% of staff and students have been wearing masks over the last week, resulting in a significant decrease in absenteeism.

Paterson Public Schools in New Jersey has joined Philadelphia, Camden, and Passaic on a short but growing list of districts in the Mid-Atlantic region that are requiring masks during the first few weeks of 2023. Paterson’s mandate was put in place indefinitely on Jan. 3 due to local outbreaks of COVID-19, RSV, and flu cases.

New school mask mandates are evidence-based

FETC 2023

The Future of Education Technology® Conference takes place live and in person Jan. 23-26, 2023, in New Orleans. Register now!

Masks were found to have reduced the spread of COVID in Massachusetts schools that continued to require them after the state lifted its mandate in February 2022, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Schools that made masks optional saw an additional 45 COVID cases per 1,000 students and staff in the 15 weeks after the statewide requirement ended. The districts where leaders kept mandates in place had higher percentages of low-income students, students with disabilities, and English-language learners, as well as higher percentages of Black and Latinx students and staff, the study found.

Epidemiologists at the University of Michigan have also reaffirmed the effectiveness of masks in blocking the transmission of COVID and other respiratory illnesses. When the Delta variant was rampant in the fall of 2021, students were more likely to contract COVID in districts that had dropped mandates. Researchers also found the spread of non-COVID respiratory illness was cut in half in a community where mask-wearing was common.

Mental health crisis: Why Seattle schools are suing 4 social media giants 

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

Most Popular