(July 21, 2021) - Students in Wichita, Kansas, public schools can ditch the masks when classes begin. Detroit public schools will probably require them unless everyone in a room is vaccinated. In Pittsburgh, masks will likely be required regardless of vaccination status. And in some states, schools cannot mandate face coverings under any circumstances.
School districts across the U.S. are yet again confronting the realities of a polarized country and the lingering pandemic as they navigate mask requirements, vaccine rules and social distancing requirements for the fast-approaching new school year.
The spread of the delta variant and the deep political divisions over the outbreak have complicated decisions in districts from coast to coast. In some conservative states, lawmakers have banned districts from requiring masks. Schools are weighing a variety of plans to manage junior high and middle school classrooms filled with both vaccinated and unvaccinated students.
Weekly tallies by the American Academy of Pediatrics based on state reports show that COVID-19 cases in kids increased nationally in July after a couple of months of declines. The most recent data shows a 1% increase from July 1 to July 15, representing 43,000 additional cases.
The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday recommended universal masking in schools, even for those who are vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month recommended mask-wearing indoors only for students and staff who are not fully vaccinated.
The vaccine has not been approved for children under 12. If it shown to be safe and effective for younger ages, vaccine manufacturers may seek emergency authorization sometime this fall or winter.
School officials say masking decisions have been complicated by conflicting advice from public health officials.
“It’s frustrating. Parents hear that these are recommendations, and it becomes a delicate dance” because of differing opinions, said Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Community Schools, outside Detroit.
He probably will recommend that the school board make masking optional, although he worries about potential outbreaks because people are gathering for sporting events, family reunions and other activities.
“It would be very helpful if there was agreement among the medical community what the approach should be,” Matthews said. When everyone wore masks last year, “it created a sense of community, a sense that we’re all in this together. Now it ends up dividing people.”
School districts that can set their own policies are taking different approaches.
In Detroit public schools, everyone will likely be required to wear a mask unless an entire room is vaccinated. Officials are developing an identification system, perhaps by wearing lanyards, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said.
In Kansas, most schoolchildren and teachers will not be required to wear masks. The state’s largest district, Wichita, made masks optional starting July 6 and surveyed parents before announcing its reopening plan, said Wichita Public Schools spokeswoman Susan Arensman.
“A lot of them, their big talking points were about the emotional well-being of students and staff,” Arensman said. “They still wanted kids to be safe, but they also wanted kids to be back to normal.”