By JACQUELINE HOWARD and ELIZABETH STUART
As students return to school in the coming weeks, some will be masked and some won’t. With different state laws around what schools can require – and some schools enforcing masks and others not – the ever-changing rules have left some parents, teachers and students confused.
A new CNN analysis has found that at least nine states – Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Vermont – have enacted legislation that prohibits districts from requiring masks in schools. The list of schools banning mask mandates has been constantly changing, but so far they are all states with Republican governors.
While there are some differences between the policies in each state, they all point to the same debate at the heart of efforts to return to in-person instruction: Who gets to decide whether to mandate masks in schools – state politicians or local school officials?
In Utah and Iowa, the governors signed bills passed by the legislatures, cementing the bans on school mask mandates into law. However, in response to concerns that the bill in Utah oversteps local control, it does include a provision allowing schools to require masks during outbreaks only if the decision is made in collaboration with local health departments.
In South Carolina, Texas and Georgia, the governors all signed executive orders taking steps to limit schools’ abilities to implement mask mandates. Their authority to do so “varies from state to state,” according to Lindsay Wiley, director of the Health Law and Policy Program at American University.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster was the first to issue an executive order preventing schools from issuing mask mandates.
“With regard to mask requirements in public schools, the governor has directed DHEC – in consultation with the S.C. Department of Education – to develop and distribute a standardized form a parent or legal guardian may sign to opt their child out of mask requirements imposed by any public school official or public school district,” the May 11 order said.
These different state laws prohibiting mask mandates in schools conflict with guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The American Academy of Pediatrics released new COVID-19 guidance for schools on Monday that supports in-person learning and recommends universal masking in school of everyone over the age of 2, regardless of vaccination status – a stricter position than that taken earlier this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC recently updated its COVID-19 school guidance, which also emphasized in-person schooling is a priority in the fall, but advised that fully vaccinated students, teachers and staff do not need to wear masks in school.
The CDC recommendations leave room for local agencies, enterprises, cities and states “to make a judgment call” on what should be required or recommended in their communities based on the COVID-19 situation on the ground, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN’s Kate Bolduan on Monday.
Still, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ stricter position is “reasonable,” Fauci said.
The AAP recommendations are along the same lines as what has been recommended in places with a lot of coronavirus transmission, such as Los Angeles County, which recently reinstated its mask mandate amid a rise in cases and hospitalizations.
“When you have a degree of viral dynamics in the community, and you have a substantial proportion of the population that is unvaccinated, you really want to go the extra step, the extra mile, to make sure that there’s not a lot of transmission, even breakthrough infections among vaccinated individuals,” Fauci said. “For that reason, you can understand why the American Academy of Pediatrics might want to do that – they just want to be extra safe.”
There are some states – including Connecticut, Hawaii, New Mexico, New York, Virginia, and Washington – that follow the AAP guidance to require masks among K-thru-12 students regardless of their vaccination status.
“All school personnel, volunteers, visitors, and students must wear cloth face coverings or an acceptable alternative – e.g., surgical mask – at school when indoors regardless of vaccination status,” according to guidance from Washington’s Department of Health, which was updated earlier this month. However, in Washington, masks are not required outdoors.
Last week, California quickly reversed its school mask policy after announcing that students who refused to wear a mask indoors would be turned away. For now, the state will require masks but leave decisions on how to handle enforcement up to the districts.
“California’s school guidance will be clarified regarding masking enforcement, recognizing local schools’ experience in keeping students and educators safe while ensuring schools fully reopen for in-person instruction,” the California Department of Public Health tweeted.
Even among the states requiring masks, there’s indication policies are still in flux.
New Mexico is standing by its guidance issued in April for now, in which masks are required for all students in school. But New Mexico’s Public Education Department is revisiting its policy since the CDC has updated its guidance.
“We expect our updated guidance, which will be announced upon completion, to align closely with the CDC’s recommendations and to continue making the health and safety of children a priority,” NMPED said in a statement to CNN.
Overall, Fauci said that different recommendations can “indeed cause a bit of confusion.”