This month, Tempe mother Kammy Pany was disappointed to learn the Arizona House passed a measure that would prohibit all school districts and charter schools from requiring masks.
After being home for a year, her three elementary school-aged children were excited to return to lessons in person this fall. But because of their compromised immune systems and the likely mask change, Pany felt she had no choice but to find a school that offered online learning. After researching about six, she finally found one.
“It’s been difficult, and the kids at this point, they stopped asking about going back to school,” Pany said. “They stopped asking about friends. They're just used to this new life. ... It’s been pretty isolating for all of us.”
Arizona is one of the latest states to consider a permanent ban on mask mandates in public K-12 schools, charter schools and colleges and universities. Lawmakers and governors in at least three other states—Iowa, Texas and Utah—have passed similar legislation or signed executive orders that forbid school districts from requiring face coverings.
Some of the moves came despite guidance on May 15 from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advising schools to continue requiring masks. Of the states that ban school mask requirements, none has vaccinated more than 30% of children ages 12 to 17. That compares with the 34% national rate for the same age group, according to The New York Times.
Parents, education advocates and health professionals have voiced concerns that as more students return to school buildings, the larger class sizes could put at risk the kids who are unvaccinated or too young to get the shots, even as more transmissible variants circulate throughout the country. On the other hand, some lawmakers, mostly Republicans, say vaccinated students should have the freedom to choose whether to mask up.
“People will say, ‘Well, I go to the store, and I'm not wearing masks. And I haven’t gotten COVID,’” said Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “But schools are kind of special environments, and people spend a lot of time in them. So, if there is a person who has COVID at some school … your risks of getting exposed, if you're in that classroom, are pretty high.”
Like adults, children can contract COVID-19 and infect other people; however, fewer children have been sick than adults, and it is rare that infected children die, according to the CDC. School-based mitigation efforts, such as masking and daily screening for symptoms, limit COVID-19 transmission in schools, according to a June study by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Princeton University and the University of Geneva published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Despite low infection rates, some parents in Arizona told Stateline they’d rather keep their children enrolled in virtual learning than send them back into schools that don’t have mask mandates.
Kami Galvani intended for her three children to return in person this fall, but the lack of mask mandates prompted her and her husband’s decision to keep the kids home. Galvani has twins entering the first grade, and she thinks it would be nearly impossible for them to learn without a teacher or adult physically present, so she plans to keep them enrolled in virtual learning even though she would prefer not to. This will force the Galvanis to complete work tasks after-hours or hire a nanny, she said.
“We haven't decided what we're going to do, but [the coronavirus variants] also seem to be getting more and more serious,” Galvani said. “We become more nervous about putting our kids in the classroom with potentially 30 kids for six hours a day with no air circulating and no masks.”
Two months ago, some Arizona parents protested at the board meeting of the Vail Unified School District in Tucson, because district officials refused to lift their mask requirements after the governor ended the statewide mask mandate, local news station KVOA reported. Minutes before the meeting, the school district canceled the event for fear of board members’ safety.
“These are my rights as a parent and they don’t get to decide how I raise them and what I believe is true and factual,” a parent told KVOA. “It’s disgusting what’s being done and I don’t agree with it.”
In early May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded vaccine eligibility to adolescents ages 12 to 15, but younger children are not yet eligible. This places a high burden on families and children in this group, including pupils who are unvaccinated and children of color, who may be reluctant to go back in person, said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association.
Black and Hispanic children generally have increased risks for hospitalization, intensive care unit admission and underlying medical conditions, which may place children of color at higher risks of contracting or dying from COVID-19, according to the CDC. Additionally, people of color are more likely to be hospitalized and die from COVID-19 in comparison with White people.
“Schools must be able to ensure the safety of all students, educators and their families, and prohibiting mask mandates flies in the face of science, public health and common sense,” Pringle said in a statement to Stateline.
But in Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order in May preventing governmental entities, including school districts, from requiring students, teachers, staff and visitors to wear masks after June 4. Officials who impose a mandate can be subject to a $1,000 fine.
“Texans, not government, should decide their best health practices, which is why masks will not be mandated by public school districts or government entities,” Abbott said in a news release at the time. “We can continue to mitigate COVID-19 while defending Texans’ liberty to choose whether or not they mask up.”
Abbott’s office did not respond to Stateline’s questions about the decision.
In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation in May that prohibits local cities and public and private schools from mandating masks.
In Idaho, GOP Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin signed an executive order in May during the governor’s absence that barred cities and schools from requiring masks. GOP Gov. Brad Little returned to the state and rescinded the order a day later, saying it unlawfully took away authority from local leaders.
Many states have similarly allowed local school districts to have autonomy over the decisions.
Governors who lift their own mask mandates are within legal bounds given their state of emergency powers, said Paul Tapp, managing attorney for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. But governors banning schools from requiring one is more complicated.
“I have not seen or heard anyone argue the governor does not have the right to do that, and I don’t know why it hasn’t been [an issue],” Tapp said.
But Tapp added that he thinks lawsuits against governors would fail because it would be difficult to find a legal basis to bring action. The Association of Texas Professional Educators argues that decisions regarding schools should be local, he said. “What works, especially as a state with all types of demographics and size in Texas, where you have everything from one schoolhouse in a district to a district with 1 million students in it, there’s no one-size-fits-all.”
In Arizona, state education advocate groups such as Save Our Schools Arizona and the Arizona Education Association opposed the House, saying regulations should be left up to local leaders. Urban and rural communities have distinct needs and rates of infection vary between different communities, said Dawn Penich-Thacker, co-founder and spokesperson for Save Our Schools. The House shouldn’t have passed a one-size-fits-all law, she added.
Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, called it shocking that the Republican-controlled House added the mask amendment to the budget bill.
“In a state where you have one of the lower vaccination rates, [no masks] becomes problematic because some parents will not be sensitive to masks,” Thomas said. “And so no matter how well you protect your child, no matter how small you make their social circle, no matter how much you wash their hands, wear a mask, and you're thinking about everyone else, if every other parent isn't doing that, and sending their kid into the same small, overcrowded classroom that your kid’s in, that's a risk.”
Dr. Sara Bode, a primary care pediatrician and medical director of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Care Connection School-Based Health and Mobile Clinics, said she understands the importance of getting kids back in buildings for emotional and academic growth. But she said the most important thing is that schools need support, such as government funding, and masks are still an important mitigation strategy, especially for students with special health care needs who are ineligible for COVID-19 vaccines.
“This uniformity of masking will help to maintain compliance, inclusivity, and a positive culture,” Bode said. “If [students with health needs] cannot be vaccinated due to their age and other health reasons, it will be impossible for them to attend [in-person learning] if the school is not providing a safe environment.”
For parents battling with whether to send kids in person, Bodie advised that they talk with their pediatrician and “take a look at the whole set of circumstances and help advise them on risk versus benefit.”