An increasing number of school districts are requiring students to wear masks as they return from winter break, but the number is just a fraction of what it once was during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, spreading, several schools this week began temporarily implementing masking rules after the holidays likely increased travel and gatherings.
Public schools in Ann Arbor, Michigan, joined the growing list on Sunday, with Superintendent Jeanice Kerr Swift announcing a Jan. 9-20 mask mandate for school students, staff and visitors.
“During this time of return from travel and social activities, the requirement of masks while indoors at school is a measure to reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses and related absenteeism and to prioritize health and in-school learning, particularly at this transition time following the winter break,” Kerr Swift said. “We all understand the critical importance of our students and staff being present for in-school learning on every day possible.”
Masks were among the most visible – and the most contentious – of mitigation measures during the height of the pandemic. Their use was heavily politicized, complicating the adoption of the basic precaution and likely prohibiting a return of any but targeted, local directives that they be worn.
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School districts in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have also implemented similar mandates.
Chelsea Public Schools in Boston did not list an end date for its mask mandate, with its superintendent saying that “masks must be worn in school buildings at all times except when eating or drinking.”
School districts in New Jersey and Pennsylvania last month alerted students they would be bringing back masking rules after the break.
“I know this is a relief to some, and a frustration to others. No matter what your position may be, I ask for your cooperation,” New Jersey’s Paterson school district Superintendent Eileen Shafer wrote in a letter. “Please continue to maintain universal masking throughout our buildings and we encourage you to take all other precautions against the spread of the COVID-19, RSV, flu virus including frequent hand washing, avoiding large gatherings, and staying home when sick.”
Although it did not implement a mask mandate, Chicago Public Schools asked students and employees to test themselves for COVID-19 before entering classrooms.
“In order to keep our school communities safe, please test for COVID-19 before returning to school,” the notice stated. “If you test positive, please report the positive test using the COVID-19 Self-Reporting Form, and follow the guidance outlined on our safety page.”
Despite several respiratory viruses spreading, the number of schools implementing mask mandates is nowhere near what it was at previous points in the pandemic. The trend highlights a continued movement away from public health mitigation measures as more Americans appear ready to resume pre-pandemic life despite increasing COVID-19 cases and deaths.
The majority of the country – 75% of counties – is experiencing a “high” level of COVID-19 transmission, according to the CDC. But only 20% of counties are considered to be under a CDC recommendation to wear masks while indoors in public areas under the agency’s “community levels,” which is the guidance it adopted in February that diverges from transmission levels.
“CDC continues to recommend masking for anyone choosing to travel by plane, train, bus or other form of public transportation, or for anyone who may be immunocompromised or increased risk of severe disease,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a call with reporters in December.