COVID-19 mask mandates latest flashpoint for U.S. schools

(Reuters) – Two days after the school board in Johnston, Iowa, decided last week to keep requiring mask wearing in schools to prevent coronavirus transmission, the state’s Republican governor signed a law that immediately prohibited such mandates.

FILE PHOTO: A principal greets students as they return to New York City’s public schools for in-person learning, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, at P.S. 506 in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., December 7, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

The reaction in Johnston was swift and sharply divided, with some parents applauding the move to make masks optional for the waning days of the school year and others calling it dangerous given the continued threat from COVID-19.

“I just find it super disappointing and selfish,” said local parent Sara Parris, who is still sending her two sons to class with face coverings.

The debate over masks in schools is yet another flashpoint for U.S. educators grappling with how to keep students and staff safe during the pandemic. Friction around returning to in-person learning has given way to heated disagreements over whether masks should be shed for good.

Iowa and Texas have banned school districts from requiring kids to wear masks on campus. Similar moves are under consideration in other states and local jurisdictions, spurred in part by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saying on May 13 that vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks in most situations.

With children under age 12 not yet eligible for vaccinations, however, the CDC recommends face coverings in educational settings at least through the end of the school year. While children are less likely to suffer severe COVID-19, they are not without risk and can readily transmit the virus.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said on Twitter that her state was “putting parents back in control of their child’s education and protecting the rights of all Iowans to make their own health care decisions.”

Responding to the governor via Twitter, Democratic state Senator Sarah Trone Garriott said: “I’m hearing from lots of parents reporting that their children are being bullied for wearing a mask. Are you going to stand up for their personal choice?”

At the Johnston school board meeting last week, most parents spoke in favor of making masks optional, with one mother calling masking requirements for children abusive. Other parents emailed school officials asking for mask mandates to remain in place.

“It’s been difficult to try to find the right balance,” Justin Allen, president of the school board and a parent of two high school students, said in an interview.

“Just when you think you are in kind of a comfort zone and you think you can focus on education for awhile, something else emerges and you have another controversial issue to address.”

CDC STUDY BACKS MASKS

In North Carolina, parents opposed to mandatory face coverings staged a protest in Wake County after Democratic Governor Roy Cooper lifted mask requirements in some situations but not in schools.

“Parents should determine if their child should wear a mask, not school systems or the governor,” parent Nazach Snapp wrote in a letter to the Wake County school board.

Others urged the board to continue its mask requirement.

“Given that vaccines are not available yet for children under 12, I implore you to continue to require students in middle and elementary settings to wear masks,” wrote parent Mimosa Hines.

A study here published by the CDC on Friday showed that in elementary schools that required masks, transmission of COVID-19 was lower by 37% than in schools where masks were optional. The study, which included 169 elementary schools in Georgia that were open for in-person instruction, also showed improved ventilation slowed virus transmission.

It advised increasing, not decreasing, the use of masks and ventilation in schools.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association, two unions that represent a total of about 5 million teachers and staff, have urged states to keep their mask requirements at least through the end of this school year.

While nearly 90% of AFT’s members have been vaccinated against COVID-19, many of their students have not.

U.S. regulators earlier this month authorized use of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer Inc and partner BioNTech SE for children ages 12 to 15. It is still being tested for use in younger children.

AFT President Randi Weingarten said Texas and Iowa “jumped the gun” in removing their mask requirements. Politics around masks, along with unclear guidance from the CDC, have left teachers in an awkward position, she said.

“Teachers don’t want to become the mask police,” she said. “It’s time to let us actually teach.”

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