How one district is planning to block bullying over students’ mask choices

More states and district impose mask mandates as delta spreads and school year approaches
By: | August 6, 2021

Amidst the debate over school mask mandates, some districts want to prevent students from getting bullied over face coverings—whether they wear them or not.

Masks remain optional in many districts, and administrators in Florida’s Collier County Public Schools want to focus on kindness and personal choice, says Chad Oliver, the executive director of communications and community engagement.

“On the first day of school, we want students to look around and notice some students may be wearing masks and some may not, and that’s OK,” Oliver says.

During the first week of school, principals in the 48,000-student district will share messages about masking during morning announcements.

“They will say something like, ‘As you may know, masks are optional this year. As we build a culture of kindness, let’s remember to respect, be sensitive to and value individual choice,'” Oliver says.

Oliver’s team will feature students in public services announcements to spread the message of respect for masking choices.

“We know the value of students speaking to students,” he says. “We want to get in front of any potential harassment tied to masking.”

Several other districts where masks are optional are taking a similar approach. In its policies for returning to in-person instruction, Onslow County Schools in North Carolina declares: “Harassment, discrimination, bullying or intimidation based on any person’s decision to wear or not wear a face covering or mask will not be tolerated.”

Mask mandates multiply

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy placed schools in his state under a universal mask mandate because of rising delta infections, the ineligibility of kids under 12 to get vaccinated, and lingering vaccine hesitancy among teens and adults who can get a shot.

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New Jersey officials are adamant about conducting full-time, in-person instruction. Without a mask mandate, it is not a matter of if but when a school or district shuts down because of an outbreak the delta variant, which has put children in its “crosshairs,” Murphy said.

“This is not an announcement that gives any of us, or me personally, any pleasure, but as the school year approaches and numbers rapidly increase, it is the one we need to make right now,” Murphy said at a press conference Friday. “Anyone telling you we can safely reopen our schools without requiring masks is quite simply lying to you.”

In the 2020-2021 school year, when a universal mask mandate was in place, New Jersey documented a little more than 1,260 in-school COVID transmissions among the state’s one million students, staff and teachers, Murphy said.

“I want as much as anybody else in our state to see our kids’ smiles as they start their school years,” he said. “But I do not want to see any of them getting sick needlessly or schools having to shut down again or go remote because of an outbreak, especially of a dangerous variant that has put kids in its crosshairs.”

In Minnesota, which has not yet announced a mandate, two of the state’s largest districts have announced they will require face coverings regardless of age or vaccination status.

Minneapolis Public Schools’ mandate takes effect on Aug. 9 while St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard will propose a universal masking requirement to the district’s school board on Aug. 10.

And in Missouri, several schools in the St. Louis area, including St. Louis Public Schools, have mandated masks for the start of school, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported.

District leaders defy governors

Elsewhere, district leaders are pushing back against state bans on mask mandates. Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II will propose a mask mandate to his school board despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide ban on such requirements.

“The health and safety of our students and staff continue to be our guiding compass in all of our decisions,” House said in a video message to the district. “Additional safety measures are needed to protect students, staff and families.”

And in Florida, several districts moved to defy Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on mandates, despite a threat to withhold state funding.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on Thursday urged elected officials not to let adult anti-mask politics risk districts having to shut down classrooms and buildings due to COVID outbreaks.

“I’m worried that the decisions that are being made that are not putting students at the center, and student health and safety at the center is going to be why schools may be disrupted,” Cardona said at a White House press briefing, according to CNN. “So we know what to do. And, you know, don’t be the reason why schools are disrupted, because of the politicization of this effort to reopen schools.”