The first day of middle school gives almost all kids the jitters. But for Colette Hanna, who started sixth grade Wednesday at Camp Road Middle School in Charleston, South Carolina, knowing that her school district decided at the last minute to require everyone to wear a mask was reassuring.
“I was already planning to wear a mask to protect me and other people because I’m not vaccinated, I’m only 11,” Colette said. “It wasn’t a big deal to me that other people might not be wearing masks. But this is better. I’m pretty happy about it because now everyone will be protected.”
Colette has cystic fibrosis, which makes her more vulnerable to COVID-19, so she and her family have worn masks throughout the pandemic. Her mom, Mandy Kreptowski, said her daughter is comfortable wearing a mask.
But the mom added she had been worried that Colette could have felt judged if she were one of the only ones wearing a mask on the first day of school.
The Charleston County School Board voted Monday, two days before school started, to require all K-12 students and teachers to wear masks despite a state law forbidding schools from spending state money on enforcing mask mandates.
The county’s decision follows a similar one earlier this month by the mayor and city council of Columbia, the state capital. And Richland County, which surrounds Columbia, this week approved an ordinance requiring students and teachers of children ages 2 through 14 in public and private schools and day care centers to wear masks.
But the Charleston City Council failed to pass a similar measure after a vocal group of constituents at a public hearing called on the city not to implement a mandate.
Colette and many other middle schoolers may not think wearing a mask is a big deal, though many doctors and public health officials consider it crucial. But for parents and elected officials in South Carolina and elsewhere, the subject has become a political flashpoint.
Defying Republican governors and legislators, a growing number of school districts are instituting mask mandates for students and teachers. They have done so despite GOP threats to cut state funding or dock school officials’ pay and an intense backlash from anti-mask parents, who have shown up in force at public meetings.
Twelve states and the District of Columbia require everyone to wear masks in K-12 schools. Eight states prohibit any such requirement and 29 states leave the decision up to local school districts. New Mexico requires masks for non-vaccinated people in schools.
Source: Burbio, Stateline research as of Aug. 18
Two counties in Texas did the same as Charleston County, contradicting an executive order from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott that banned mask mandates. A lower court upheld the counties’ mask mandates, but over the weekend, the state’s Supreme Court temporarily decided in the governor’s favor.
Several large Florida counties also have contradicted Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and, at the risk of losing state funding, required masks in K-12 schools.
Similar battles are playing out throughout the country, even as schools begin to welcome back students.
Dr. David Dowdy, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said it’s still true that children are significantly less likely to get sick and die of COVID-19 than adults.
As of Aug. 12, 0.9% of children with COVID-19 have been hospitalized, and 0.01% of child cases have resulted in death, according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. However, cases among children increased 5% in the first half of August, according to the report.
At this stage in the pandemic, an increasing number of children are being hospitalized and dying from COVID-19, because they’re the ones who aren’t vaccinated, Dowdy said.
Children ages 12 to 17 are now eligible for a COVID-19 shot, but so far, only 49% have received at least one dose, compared with 70% of American adults and 90% of people 65 and older. For children under 12, vaccines are not yet available.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends universal masking in schools for all children two and older. The medical organization explained that requiring everyone, vaccinated or not, to wear a mask “is the best and most effective strategy to create consistent messages, expectations, enforcement and compliance without the added burden of needing to monitor vaccination status.”
Dowdy and other public health experts insist that a layered prevention strategy that includes mask wearing; vaccinations; social distancing, contact tracing and quarantining; improved ventilation; and disinfecting and hand washing can make schools safe enough for kids to get back into classrooms and make up for valuable time lost during last year’s shutdowns.
But critics of mask mandates, including South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, argue that requiring kids to wear masks violates their personal freedoms. He argues that a provision lawmakers included in the state budget that prevents schools from spending state money to enforce mask mandates effectively bans such mandates.
“Shutting our state down, closing schools and masking children who do not have a choice, to protect adults who do have a choice, is the wrong thing to do and we’re not going to do it in South Carolina,” he tweeted earlier this month.
Conservative scholars also cite studies that they say show masks don’t provide enough protection to prevent viral surges. They argue state and local governments should prioritize other measures such as protecting people in nursing homes and expanding the use of in-home rapid COVID-19 tests.
But numerous other studies show that wearing a mask can reduce the likelihood of catching the virus by 85% and reduce the chances of infecting other people by 60% to 90%, Dowdy said.
In some school classrooms, he added, particularly those with kids under 12, masks may be one of the only ways to protect students and teachers, since not all schools can afford to upgrade their ventilation systems or provide adequate physical distancing.
South Carolina and seven other Republican-led states—Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Utah—prohibit schools from requiring masks in the classroom.
The opposite is true in some states led by Democrats.
Last week, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear joined governors in 10 other states—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington—and the mayor of the District of Columbia, in requiring all students, teachers and visitors to wear masks inside K-12 schoolhouses. New Mexico requires masks for unvaccinated people in schools.
In the 29 states that have not yet mandated masks or prohibited local governments from requiring them, governors, health departments or education agencies in all but Missouri and South Dakota have recommended that local school districts follow the latest masking guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to research from the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.
Burbio, a New York-based school research organization, found that mask mandates were in place in 103 of the 200 largest school districts in the country last week, noting that the number could rise as more schools open.
According to an August survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 63% of parents of school-age children say their child’s school should require unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks in school. “Despite controversy around the country about masks in schools, most parents want their school to require masks of unvaccinated students and staff,” said Kaiser President and CEO Drew Altman.
With only 62% of the nation’s 50 million students back in school, it’s too early to know how many kids will have to go home because of COVID-19 outbreaks in the days and weeks ahead.
The Washington Post reported last week that more than 10,000 students and teachers in 14 states already had been sent home to quarantine because of COVID-19 outbreaks in reopened schools, based on a survey of local news articles.
This week, more than 3,000 students and staff from New Orleans public schools have been sent home due to possible COVID-19 exposure. And in Florida, the school board in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, announced it would hold an emergency meeting to consider a mask mandate after 8,400 students and more than 300 employees were sent home to isolate because of the virus.
In addition, a handful of schools have postponed their start dates because of COVID-19 outbreaks and a few have temporarily closed. That’s in a year when legislatures and governors in many states are requiring kids to attend school in classrooms and many districts have discontinued online learning options.
“Asking kids to wear masks is trivial compared to telling kids they can’t go back to school because COVID rates are too high,” said Jon Valant, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan policy nonprofit.
The number of students who will be sent home because of a COVID-19 outbreak this school year largely will depend on the details of widely varying state and district quarantine rules.
Many districts, including Charleston County, where Colette attends middle school, follow CDC school quarantine guidelines, which exempt kids from having to stay at home for a week or more if they were wearing a mask and got no closer than three feet from the infected person. As the school year progresses, Valant said, that exemption could become an added bonus for parents and students who wear masks.