In a matter of days, governors in several states announced an end to their school masking mandates. Some public health officials say it's about time.
"It’s not that masks are bad," Dr. Lucy McBride, a practicing internist, says. "It's just that there's no real world evidence that masking children for the majority of their school day reduces the transmission of the virus."
But not everyone agrees.
"Right now, in order to keep schools open and to keep students in school, we just think right now that we have to continue with masks," Michelle Boyd, assistant superintendent of the Special Services Department at Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, says.
And parents are torn.
"I don't want my children growing up masked forever. I don't think any parent does," Astra Walker, a parent in Ann Arbor, MI, says. "I think we want to make sure that the vaccine is accessible to everyone. And right now, it's not for children under five."
Today, On Point: Is it the right time for those masks to come off?
Debra Furr-Holden, professor of public health and associate dean for public health integration at Michigan State University. Director of the Flint Center for Health Equity Solutions. (@DrDebFurrHolden)
Stephanie Avanessian, mother of three in La Canada Flintridge, CA.
Michelle Boyd, assistant superintendent of the Special Services Department at Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.
Astra Walker, mother of two in Ann Arbor, MI.
Karen Vaites, literacy specialist in New York State. (@karenvaites)
Transcript: Highlights From The Show's Open
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: All of the sudden, the dam broke. In the past week, governors in a slew of states announced almost in unison that state-level school masking requirements will soon end.
GOV. PHIL MURPHY [Tape]: Because of the dramatic decline in our COVID numbers, effective Monday, March 7, the statewide school mask mandate will be lifted.
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER [Tape]: It's time to give our kids a sense of normalcy and lift the mask mandate on a statewide basis for schools.
GOV. JOHN CARNEY [Tape]: We've decided that as of March 31st, we will remove the requirement in schools and childcare facilities for those children to to wear masks.
GOV. NED LAMONT [Tape]: In particular, what that means is the protocols for masks to be worn in schools as of the 28th, no longer my order, the state of Connecticut. It will be up to you.
CHAKRABARTI: New Jersey's Phil Murphy, Massachusetts' Charlie Baker, Delaware's John Carney and Connecticut's Ned Lamont. Well also this week, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky had this speedy response.
ROCHELLE WALENSKY [Tape]: Right now, our CDC guidance has not changed. We have and continue to recommend masking in areas of high and substantial transmission, that is essentially everywhere in the country, in public indoor settings. We continue to recommend universal masking in our schools.
CHAKRABARTI: Oregon says it'll end its school mask mandate later this spring. Maryland's governor Larry Hogan is asking his state's Board of Education to rescind school masks there. So things are moving fast. And I'm going to emphasize at the state-level because as you heard, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont highlight, in states that are now changing the rules, the mask debate is going to get very local. So we're going to start with a preview of what that might look like.
MICHELLE BOYD: Good morning again. My name is Michelle Boyd and I'm the assistant superintendent for special services in Fairfax County schools in Fairfax, Virginia.
CHAKRABARTI: On January 24th, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order allowing parents to opt out of school mask mandates. Seven municipalities, though, including Fairfax County, went to court. Last week, a judge temporarily blocked Youngkin's order, allowing those counties to keep school mask mandates in place for now.
And yesterday, Fairfax County schools announced plans to scale back masking 'when the Fairfax community reaches moderate transmission rates.' Or a COVID test positivity rate between 5% and 8% as defined by the CDC, and the county is at just over 9% now. Well assistant superintendent Michelle Boyd told us why, she thinks it's important for the district's 178,000 students to mask up for a while longer.
BOYD: We are a large school division and we have had less than a percent of transmission in schools, so the layer prevention strategies that we've been implementing, of which face mask is one of the important ones, certainly along with vaccination and staying home when sick, have been really, really integral and vital in helping us keep our schools open, keeping our students healthy and keeping our staff healthy. So that we can continue to focus on teaching, and learning and doing that in-person, which we know is incredibly important to our students and our community.
BOYD: We realized that, you know, there's certainly benefit of seeing students and engaging and reading facial expressions, but we're also continuing to work with students and supporting social, emotional learning and other ways to help mitigate any particular risk that there might be with the continuation of face mask. We not only think about students, we also think about staff. We know that it's important to have our teachers in school and available to students.
We know that they are the most and significant factor in student achievement, increasing student outcomes. And so it's important for us to ensure that the layered prevention strategies that we implement in our school division are not only supportive of students, but also supportive of staff. We all long for the time when we can be without masks, see each other's faces.
BOYD: And so we're hopeful that that the data will will lead us to be able to make a shift then. But I do think that students are nimble and that students are resilient. Probably more so than adults. And as long as explained to them and things are modeled for them, I think that students really have done a good job in adjusting with the different changes that have occurred over time, as well as our communities.
CHAKRABARTI: Assistant superintendent Michelle Boyd of Fairfax County Schools in Virginia. Well, let's hop over now to Los Angeles County, California.
STEPHANIE AVANESSIAN: Maybe they are resilient, but at this stage in the game, the burden of proof shouldn't be on me, who wants to take masks away. The burden of proof should be on the people who want the masks on the kids, to prove to the rest of us that these masks actually do more good than harm.
CHAKRABARTI: Stephanie Avanessian is mother to three girls, ages 11, nine and four. This week, California announced it would end its statewide indoor mask mandate for vaccinated adults, but it did not make an official change for schools. The state's Department of Public Health said that 'the state is continuing to work with education leaders and adjustments will be shared in the coming week.'
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Los Angeles County is keeping both its indoor mask mandate and its outdoor masking guidance for now, which includes children wearing masks while at the playground. Stephanie says she's seen negative academic, emotional and mental health impacts of max masks on her kids, and she wants them off.
AVANESSIAN: It's grown ups' jobs to take care of kids. It's not kids' jobs to take care of grown ups. I primed them, I was like, we just have to do this until you're vaccinated. And you'll be vaccinated pretty soon. You know, I came home, I picked them up from school. We're pulling into the cul-de-sac and like my neighbors are like talking to each other in the minivan and I'm like, What's going on? And they're like, the vaccines are at the pharmacy, Flintridge pharmacy.
If you just go now, there's no wait. And so like, I literally hook a [U-turn] and like drive to the pharmacy. My kids are hungry and we stand in this line. And I got shots in their arms on November 3rd. Literally, my nine year old today was like, I don't understand, like I've had COVID twice. Like, I didn't even know I had it. All I did was test positive. Like, when are we going to go back to normal, mom? Like, are they going to make us mask forever?
And look, I mean, she literally asked me this morning. And I looked at her and I was like, I don't know. My oldest was sad a lot through the pandemic. And the masks, they really are a physical, visceral reminder of all of the trauma that they've been through over the last two years. I personally would wear a mask anywhere you ask me to, for the rest of my life, as an adult. If it meant that small children could smile at their friends and their teachers. All the kids, not just mine, but all the kids. If not now when?
From The Reading List
USA Today: "With vaccines available mask mandates are not necessary in school" — "As scientists and physicians, we are concerned that COVID-19 mitigation measures for children are doing more harm than good."
This program aired on February 11, 2022.