Why students are getting to ditch masks as some warn of a winter COVID spike

'We implore you to allow us to focus on student learning the next two months, not masking,' superintendent says to families
By: | October 19, 2021

Mask mandates are dropping like dominos in schools throughout the South and parts of the Midwest even as districts in COVID hotspots farther north grapple with controversies over face coverings.

Schools closures have also declined dramatically this fall—District Administration’s school closure tracker only found a handful of closures as of Tuesday morning. But The New York Times on Monday warned that cases are increasing in Northern states where colder weather is driving people to spend more time indoors.

Missoula County Public Schools in Montana and the Albany County School District 1, headquarters in Laramie, Wyoming, both extended mask mandates last week. In Michigan, the Clintondale Community School District required masks for the first time this school year on Oct. 18 after a survey showed strong parent support for the policy.

The survey also showed less than 20% of the district’s students were fully vaccinated.

And in northern Wisconsin, the rural Unified School District of Antigo enacted a mask mandate on Monday that will last until Christmas. Antigo Superintendent Julie Sprague pleaded with parents not to let any distress over the new requirement disrupt instruction.

“Please, as the primary role model and support in your child’s life, have a discussion with your child about the board mandate and your expectations for adherence,” Sprague wrote in a letter to families. “We implore you to allow us to focus on student learning the next two months, not masking.”

Masks are now recommended

But just as many, or more, districts are ending their mandates even though children under 12 are still not eligible to get vaccinated against COVID. Henry County Schools, a medium-size district in the Atlanta suburbs, just shifted from requiring masks to strongly encouraging them. The district also dropped capacity requirements at outdoor events and resumed field trips.

“We have a plan that is working to keep schools open and to keep students and employees safe, and just as decisive as we demonstrated we may need to be if the community health conditions changed, we will stand ready to do that in future instances, if that becomes necessary,” Superintendent Mary Elizabeth Davis said on the district’s website. “In the meantime, we have to use our plan and take the cautious step to lower levels of mitigation intensity, and now is the right time to do that.”

In Ohio, several districts have eased their masking policies, including Huber Heights City Schools, Mount Vernon City Schools, the Jonathan Alder Local School District, the Clark-Shawnee Local School District, the Minford Local School District and Northwestern Local Schools.

Dropping the requirement, but strongly encouraging face coverings is the best way to maintain in-person instruction and prevent future mask mandates, Northeastern Local Schools Superintendent John P. Kronour said in a message to the community.

“We understand that there are still a lot of mixed feelings and strong opinions surrounding masking,” Kronour said. “If we see an increase of positive COVID-19 cases and quarantines in our buildings, a universal mask requirement is likely to go back into effect. In addition, we could also decide to implement universal masking at individual school buildings based on numbers. ”

The Forrest County School District in Mississippi has made masks optional as COVID cases decline in the community. In Idaho, the Weiser School District discontinued a temporary mask mandate that was put in place in September, the Argus Observer reported.

In Arkansas, Fort Smith Public Schools ended its mask mandate on Oct. 11 “after a significant and steady decline in the number of COVID positive cases,” the district said on Facebook. Rogers Public Schools discontinued its mandate on Oct. 8 though administrators are still strongly encouraging students to wear masks.

And in New England, where statewide mask mandates have been in place since the beginning of the school year, the Newport School District dropped mask requirements in its middle and high school, the Valley News reported.

In Massachusetts, high schools that have achieved an 80% vaccination rate can apply for exemptions from the statewide mask mandate that is in effect until Nov. 1. Administrators in Ashland Public Schools, one of the first districts to reach that benchmark, have asked to go mask-optional.

But Superintendent James E. Adams said Friday there wouldn’t be an immediate change to policy.