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Masks in public schools

Students in Sabrina Werley's 4th grade math support class. During class with Learning Support teacher Sabrina Werley at Cumru Elementary School in Cumru township Wednesday morning April 14, 2021. Werley is the 2021 recipient of the Annie Sullivan Award, which recognizes local educators for their service to students with special needs. (Photo: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Students at Risk as Battle Erupts Over Masks in US Schools

“Your prohibition on mask requirements means no Arizona school can provide a safe learning environment,” a group of doctors told Arizona's GOP governor.

Andrea Germanos

As in-person instruction begins, or will soon begin, in school districts across the country amid surging Covid-19 cases fueled by the extremely transmissible Delta variant, battles have erupted over mask mandates—or the lack thereof.

Advocates of face coverings in schools say they're a crucial tool to protect kids, especially primary school students—as vaccines have not yet been authorized for those under 12—who cannot yet receive doses. Vaccination rates for those older than 12 remains low, with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data as of Aug. 2 showing those aged 12-15 with a 39.5% rate. That rate climbs to about 50% for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Calling in-person instruction for this fall "a priority," the CDC's updated guidance calls for universal masking regardless of vaccination status as part of "layered prevention strategies" for safe reopenings.

Going in the opposite direction from such an approach are a handful of states including Arizona, where Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation in June banning mask mandates in the state's schools.

That order has drawn outrage from doctors, including a group of physicians who wrote to Ducey this month. “Your prohibition on mask requirements means no Arizona school can provide a safe learning environment,” the group of over 150 doctors wrote. “Each and every one of our students and their educators deserve better."

Among those outraged at Ducey is Dr. Christina Bergin, an internal medicine specialist at University Medical Center in Phoenix. Bergin had made extensive efforts over the past year and a half to keep her kids from a Covid-19 exposure only to have such an exposure three days into classes this month.

In a widely shared Saturday Twitter thread, Bergin unleashed on Ducey and state Republicans. "We have sacrificed so much for you over these past 18 months," Bergin said. "And it took only 3 days for you to destroy one of the last things I was hanging onto—the ability to keep my kids safe."

"You forced schools to reopen without the ability to implement the same measures that kept kids and staff safe last year. And you doubled down on that despite Delta being 2-3x as contagious and cases starting to surge again," she wrote. "And as a direct result, my kiddo, who I've managed to keep from coming into contact with a known Covid+ person for 18 long months, was exposed within only 3 days of starting school."

"If others aren't masking up also, my not-yet-old-enough-to-be-vaxxed kids can be, will be, and already have been exposed," Bergin added. "And that's on you @dougducey & @AZGOP."

ABC News reported Friday:

Given the changing circumstances, several districts in Arizona are now opting to require masks, as recommended by the updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for "localities to encourage universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status."

Dr. Chad Gestson, superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District, has vowed that he will do whatever he feels is best for the health and safety of his students and staff, including defying the governor's orders, and thus requiring face coverings in classrooms.

"This decision—all decisions that we made—but this particular one is not about defiance. It's ultimately about science," Gestson told ABC News.

Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbot—even as cases soar in his state—also signed a mask mandate ban earlier this year. Abbot's May executive order is now facing a lawsuit and, as in Arizona, it's facing pushback in local school districts.

On Monday, Dallas schools announced they would institute a mandate for masks in the district despite Abbott's order. 

According to the Dallas Morning News reported Monday:

Superintendent Michael Hinojosa announced the change during a Monday morning press conference, saying that it was within his discretion to ensure the health and safety of his employees and the district's students.

Dallas' school board president, Ben Mackey, said the superintendent had the board's backing and support.

"The superintendent is the educational leader and chief executive officer of our school district tasked with the day-to-day operations of the district, which includes implementing safety protocols," Mackey said. "Requiring masks for staff and students while on district property is a reasonable and necessary safety protocol to protect against the spread of COVID-19 and the new delta variant."

As Common Dreams reported last week, Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to withhold funding from schools should they defy his order blocking mask mandates, but several districts are planning on defying that order.

And on Friday, reported NPR, "Florida's Board of Education further complicated matters for public schools by announcing they would provide private school vouchers for parents who see mask-wearing requirements as 'harassment' of their children."

As Vox summarized Monday, "Schools can stay open even in areas of high community spread, experts say—if everyone wears masks. But mask policies in schools remain a mixed bag." Citing information from Center on Reinventing Public Education director Robin Lake, the outlet reports:

Of the 100 school districts tracked by CRPE, about a third plan to require masks, a third will make them optional, and a third have yet to announce a policy, Lake said.

Many of the same areas with low rates of vaccination also lack mask mandates in schools—and eight states outright ban such mandates. In Arkansas, for example, just 37 percent of people are fully vaccinated, and cases are surging. But a state law passed earlier this year bans districts from requiring masks.

That leaves parents worried for their kids’ safety. “I just feel like they have taken away the only tool they have for the younger kids who can’t get vaccinated,” Arkansas mom Jennifer Carter told NBC News. (The ban has been challenged in court, and last Friday, a judge temporarily blocked it.)

For families who don’t feel confident in their school’s mitigation measures, it’s not clear if remote options will be available. Many districts, like New York City, have said they will not allow students to choose full-time remote learning in the fall, even though a large number of families, especially in communities of color, have said they prefer remote learning for now.

As U.S. News & World Report put it, anti-mask moves like those taken by Texas and Arizona "are just the newest chapter in a year-long contentious debate about how to reopen schools safely for in-person learning—one of the most politically charged to spin out of the pandemic."


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