During the pandemic, school districts must deal with uncertainty, not ignore it or take shots in the dark.
Mask-wearing in public schools must not be a partisan issue
In the debate over whether and how school should reopen in person, I wondered how many states are requiring students to wear face coverings. FutureEd and The 74 put out this handy map on state mask policies and I coded the policies for those that 1) require masks to be worn by students, staff, or both, 2) recommend they be worn, or 3) are either agnostic on the issue or (amazingly) recommend against.
I was alarmed to learn that only 20 states, or just under half the 45 states with data, will require mask-wearing in their public schools for at least some teachers and students. Illinois is crystal clear:
"All individuals in school buildings, including all public and nonpublic schools that serve students in prekindergarten through grade 12, must wear face coverings at all times unless they are younger than 2 years of age; have trouble breathing; or are unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the cover without assistance. Face coverings must be worn at all times in school buildings even when social distancing is maintained."
About as many states (21, or 47 percent), recommend masks be worn, often citing CDC or state guidance. Some of those recommendations are quite helpful and specific, but defer to local judgment.
Four states are either agnostic or actively opposed. Iowa and Georgia both direct schools to allow students and staff to bring face coverings from home. Iowa advises schools, “Requiring face coverings for all staff and students is not recommended. Allow the personal use of cloth face coverings by staff and students.” Pity the poor Iowan kid with the only mask in class. As many experts have said, masks are most effective if universally worn.
Not surprisingly, there is a strong relationship with the political party of the governor of the state. Nearly three quarters (70 percent) of the states requiring masks are Democratic-governed states. All four of the “agnostic or opposed” states are Republican-led states.
Most States Do Not Require Face Coverings
Perhaps most concerning, nearly all of the states with the highest concentration of cases are lackadaisical about face coverings in their schools. Tennessee is the only one of ten states with the most Coronavirus cases per capita to require face coverings in their public schools.
Parents are jittery about the prospect of sending their kids back to school buildings in the midst of a pandemic. Teachers fear for their own and their families’ safety. Meanwhile, the President and Secretary of Education are insistent that schools reopen despite surging cases, especially in Southern states. A state requirement for face coverings in public schools seems like a minimal step to both reassure parents and limit the potential for additional outbreaks that would certainly close schools again for weeks, if not many months.
The division we see in state health guidance reflects the broader politicization of school reopening. Safety protocols should never be a partisan issue. States must be focused on protecting student and staff health and well-being. It doesn't look like they're doing that.
CRPE will continue to look at the link between state policy and local reopening plans over the next several weeks. We don’t expect politics to go away, but we do expect leaders to stand up for student and public health interests.
For many students returning to class in the coming weeks, it will be back to school online.
States are dumping the instructional planning burden during an unprecedented modern pandemic onto teachers’ laps (or laptops).