Major school districts around the United States are permitting students to attend class without face coverings for the first time in nearly two years. The rules relating to face coverings, or masks, have caused fights among educators, school boards and parents throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
New York City is the largest school district in the country. It ended its mask requirement on March 7. Philadelphia lifted its school mask requirement on March 9. It joined other big cities such as Houston and Dallas that made similar moves in the past week. Chicago schools ended their mask requirement Monday.
Parents, teachers and school leaders all must balance the new rules. Some families are happy that their children no longer have to wear masks. But others say they are still worried and are urging their children to continue wearing face coverings for now.
Educators are caught in the middle.
In Anchorage, Alaska, top school official Deena Bishop says lifting the mandate in the city’s nearly 100 public schools was a welcome change. She said there were months of arguments over masks.
“So I’m glad that we’ve taken that fight away…and now we can go back to focus on learning,” Bishop said.
Falling COVID-19 infection rates and new federal health recommendations are leading states to drop the requirements. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued new guidelines saying most healthy Americans, including students, can safely stop wearing masks.
But those who disagree about ending school mask requirements often point to low vaccination rates among American children. Only about 25 percent of children ages 5 to 11 have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Just 58 percent of children ages 12 to 17 are vaccinated, the CDC says.
New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Illinois and Delaware recently lifted their statewide school mask requirements. New Jersey and Rhode Island officially dropped theirs last Monday. California, Oregon and Washington all dropped their statewide mandates on March 12.
In many places, the decisions are being made at the local school district level.
Officials in many large cities, such as Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., have said they will keep mask rules for now. Officials say that could change if vaccination rates rise among their students or if they can reach agreements with teachers unions. Unions have been strong supporters of keeping the mask requirements in place.
Chicago schools announced last week that masks will no longer be required starting March 14. The city's teachers union then promised to take officials to court. They said the move will break an agreement with the district to keep the mask rule through the end of the school year.
In New York City, elementary school student Jack Jalaly stopped wearing his mask when they became optional. For children, “it’s really great because you can see the way words are pronounced and you can see spellings,” said Jack's mother, Andrea.
But third-grad student Derrick Carter-Jacob kept his mask on even after New York removed the requirement.
“Leave it on. There’s no reason for him to take it off until basically everybody is safe,” said his parent, Michael Jacob.
John Bracey is a Latin teacher at Belmont High School near Boston, Massachusetts. He said he will keep wearing his mask through the end of the academic year, even if district officials decide to end the mandate.
“I have major concerns on so many levels,” Bracey said. “I just can’t find a public health or moral justification for removing them.”
Melissa Bello is a parent in Needham, Massachusetts, outside Boston. She said her two children were among those who happily removed their masks last week.
She said her 8-year-old son has hearing loss and has had trouble understanding what people are saying when they wear masks.
“He’s working harder every day in school and coming home more tired,” Bello said. “There’s not enough consideration for those kinds of tradeoffs in these mask mandates.”
I’m Dan Novak.
Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning from reporting by The Associated Press.
Words in This Story
district — n. an area established by a government for official government business
focus — v. to direct your attention or effort at something specific
mandate — n. an official order to do something
optional — adj. available as a choice but not required
justification — n. an acceptable reason for doing something
consideration — n. the act of thinking carefully about something you will make a decision about