CHICAGO — In the coming weeks, several states say they plan to lift mask mandates in schools. For some it's a relief, for others it will likely be stressful. The CDC says it's still too soon, and many medical experts agree. For others, it's a welcome change.
While infection rates are dropping across the U.S., nearly 99% of counties are still reporting high community transmission.
“In my opinion, it is not driven by the data,” said Mercedes Carnethon a professor of epidemiology and pulmonary and critical care at Northwestern University. “Right now, these decisions seem to be much more political, much more based on feelings.”
A report from Arizona revealed that schools in two of the state’s most populous counties were 3.5 times more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks without a mask requirement as compared to schools that required masking from day one.
“In September and August, when delta was surging and some places in the southeast went back without masks, we saw outbreaks. So, I think we can expect to see the same thing right now,” said Carnethon.
Another report found that during the first two weeks of school, the average change in pediatric COVID-19 case rates was more than 50% less in counties with school mask requirements (16.32 per 100,000/day) compared to counties without them (34.85 cases per 100,000/day).
For now, the CDC guidance has not changed. The agency continues to endorse universal masking indoors for students, staff and teachers, regardless of vaccination status.
“Masks do help,” said Carnethon. “The myth that they don't work is not based on any data.”
Still, officials in a growing number of states including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Oregon announced plans to drop school mask mandates when they expire in the next few weeks. Mandates in Nevada and Delaware have already expired.
In California and Illinois, mandates for indoor masking are being lifted, but they are still required in schools. Though, a judge in Illinois has overturned the governor’s mandate which means the issue will be decided in the courts.
“The state is appealing it. But it's temporary, and everyone also realizes that by the time the court actually decides the case, the matter will be long gone anyway,” said Nadav Shoked, a law professor at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law.
In Iowa, the governor’s ban on requiring masks in school was overturned after the Arc, the largest advocacy group for people with disabilities, and ACLU filed suit on behalf of children with disabilities. They successfully argued that not requiring masks in schools violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“By taking the position that ‘my child is healthy and will likely be fine, so let them go in without a mask’ really disregards the health experience of so many others,” said Carnethon.
While the omicron surge may be over in some places, if and when another variant of concern emerges switching back to mandates in schools could prove challenging.
“If we do this too soon and without certain metrics in place, we're going to find ourselves on a roller coaster of outbreaks and then reintroducing mitigation measures and then rolling them back again,” said Carnethon.
And though nobody wants to wear masks forever, the key is picking the right moment to abandon them.