The Changing Guidance and Requirements on Masks in Schools

August 10, 2021|1:50 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

Schoolgirl wearing protective fabric reusable face mask going to school. School education during the coronavirus pandemicThis month, as children across the country return to classrooms, preventing COVID-19 outbreaks will be top of mind. Strategies to prevent infection, as recommended by CDC, include vaccination promotion, physical distancing, improved ventilation, contact tracing, COVID-19 screening and testing, handwashing reminders, as well as correct and consistent mask use. Of these recommendations, mask use in schools has become a hotly contested issue, especially as to whether masks should be required for students, teachers, and school staff.

Due to the wide spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, now over 90% of COVID-19 cases in the United States, CDC recently revised its school guidance to recommend “universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.”

Since the emergence of COVID-19, researchers have examined the impact of mask wearing on the spread of the disease. One study found that mask requirements were associated with a decrease in the rates of daily COVID-19 cases and deaths shortly after their implementation. Another review concluded that the evidence favors the use of masks to reduce community transmission of COVID-19, especially when public compliance is high and when masks are used with a layering of other strategies, such as testing, hand washing, contact tracing, and physical distancing.

Mask use policies for school and school-related activities are being adopted and issued at the federal, state, and local levels. In January, CDC issued an order requiring anyone who uses a public mode of transportation, including school buses, to wear a mask unless exempt (e.g., a child under the age of two, a person with a disability that prevents mask wearing, etc.). Beyond school transportation, the issue of school mask use is being left to state and local jurisdictions and these decisions a falling into three categories: recommending mask use in schools, requiring mask use in schools, and limiting or prohibiting mask requirements in schools.

School Mask Recommendations and Requirements

In many states, mask use is recommended or required for schools. For example, Michigan and Alabama echo CDC’s guidance that masks be worn by everyone who enters school facilities regardless of their vaccination status—but these states are not requiring mask use. Instead, the decision whether to require masks in schools is left up to local decision makers, such as school boards and districts.

Several more states currently require mask use in schools and are doing so through emergency rulemaking, agency directive, or executive order. For example, at the direction of Oregon’s governor the Oregon Health Authority issued rules for the use of masks in the state’s K-12 schools. In neighboring Washington state, a school masking requirement was recently added the state health department’s school year guidance. In other states, such as New Jersey, the governor has issued an executive order requiring school mask use. In Louisiana, school facilities fall under the provisions included in general public masking orders.

School Mask Requirements Limited or Prohibited

On the flip side, in some states local school districts are limited or prohibited from requiring mask use. The governors in Florida, South Carolina, and Texas each signed executive orders that limit or prohibit school mask requirements. Meanwhile, Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Utah passed new laws explicitly limiting or prohibiting local schools from adopting mask requirements. For the most part, these laws were enacted before the Delta variant’s summer surge and during a time of decreasing COVID-19 case numbers and increasing vaccination rates. The steep uptick in COVID-19 cases and return to school for children who cannot be vaccinated against COVID-19 due to their age has led some former proponents of masking limits call for changes to the recent laws. For example, last week, Arkansas’ governor called the legislature into special session and requested that the law prohibiting school mask requirements be amended to allow school districts to decide whether to require masks in schools. While several bills to amend the law were introduced during special session, the Arkansas legislature adjourned without making changes to the ban.

Legal Challenges to School Mask Requirement Prohibitions

The recent limitations and prohibitions of school mask requirements have not gone unchallenged. Parents and caregivers, as well as school districts in Arkansas, have filed lawsuits challenging the validity of the state’s ban on school mask requirements. On the same day the Arkansas legislature adjourned its special session to reconsider its ban, a state court judge temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the law.

In Florida, parents of school children with disabilities claim that the governor’s recent executive order limiting local school mask requirements violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and are asking a federal court to block any further state action. Finally, in Texas, an advocacy group filed suit in state court seeking the invalidation of the governor’s prohibition of school mask requirements.

The questions surrounding whether states should recommend, require, or limit the use of masks in schools will likely not be settled by the time most children across the country begin their fall classes. As policy makers at the federal, state, and local levels make decisions about schools and masks over the next few weeks ASTHO will continue to monitor the situation and provide its members with support.

Andy Baker-White, JD, MPH, is the senior director of state health policy