As some statewide COVID-19 mask mandates in the United States are coming to an end, responsibility is shifting back to local leaders, who are caught in the middle of what have become divisive, political issues of the pandemic.
Some school officials around the country had welcomed the state-imposed mandates to spare them from having to make unpopular decisions, especially early in the pandemic. But many superintendents have said they now have the tools to decide whether masks should be required, and they welcomed the ability to adapt as needed.
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“Unfortunately, this is an issue where you are not going to make everybody happy,” Jeffrey Solan, school superintendent in Cheshire, Connecticut. “We can’t allow those individual passions to decide the debate.”
The issue of masks in schools has been so contentious in much of the country that school board meetings have devolved into shouting matches and arrests, superintendents have seen protesters outside their homes, and slates of candidates — pro- and anti-mask — have sought school board seats in an attempt to shape policies.
The development came as the seven-day average of COVID-19 cases dropped 44 percent from the prior week to 247,300 cases per day in the US, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Rochelle Walensky said on Wednesday. Average hospital admissions were down 25 percent from last week to about 13,000 per day and average deaths were 2,400 per day, a 3 percent drop from the previous week.
The relaxation of masking rules signalled an inclination by politicians to take pandemic-weary residents off an emergency footing and shift toward treating the virus as part of everyday life.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced on Wednesday that the state will end its mask mandate, but will keep masking rules in place in schools for now.
JB Pritzker, the governor of Illinois made a similar announcement, lifting requirements for most face coverings in indoor spaces, but leaving them in place for schools.
In Cheshire, Connecticut the governor announced its mandate would end later this month. The decision brought messages from parents who feel masks are critical for protecting students, as well as from others who have long been opposed.
Similarly, the governors of Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon this week announced plans to lift mandates in schools by the end of February or March, as COVID-19′s Omicron surge fades. State leaders added Massachusetts to the list on Wednesday.
The CDC still recommends masks for teachers and staff inside buildings, leaving district leaders to weigh the federal guidance against what they have seen in their own schools and heard from the parents and teachers.
School superintendents generally prefer the flexibility to make their own decisions on mask requirements based on virus infection numbers and vaccination rates, said Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association.
“What we’ve seen in this country is that the pandemic and the level of infections is very much dependent on where you are,” he said. “If you create a blanket situation that says everyone is going to have to do this, wear a mask or not wear of mask, you’re not taking into consideration the differences that exist within your own region.”
In a number of states, including Maryland and Virginia, he said, districts have been dropping and reimposing mask requirements to adapt to the latest virus numbers.
Some states that have continued to push mask mandates are facing legal challenges and public protests.