Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information on Florida’s ban on school mask mandates and to correct a reference to North Carolina’s stance on masks..
Misty Russell, a mother of three, had just moved to Greenville, South Carolina, and was ecstatic for her 8-year-old daughter to attend school in-person in a new state and school district. But, after visiting her daughter’s elementary school in August, she noticed most adults did not have on a mask, and her excitement turned into anger and fear, she said.
And last week, her daughter’s class was exposed to COVID-19, forcing the child and her classmates to quarantine and transition to virtual learning.
“The school’s job is to provide a safe environment for your kids to go to school, … which they’re choosing not to do because they just fall back with [the governor’s mask ban],” Russell said. “Well, to me, you should do what’s right and let the chips fall where they may and stand up for the kids. I don’t care what the governor says. It’s basically like, the house is on fire, and we’re just gonna sit there and watch your kids burn.”
In South Carolina, where Republican Gov. Henry McMaster this spring forbid school mask requirements, Russell feels her hands are tied. She teaches all three of her kids to keep their masks on—her two oldest are vaccinated—but she can’t monitor them outside of her care. Russell, who moved from southeast Virginia where masks were required in all schools, said she was blown away by the mask mandate ban in South Carolina.
Months after conservative politicians across the country instituted bans on school mask mandates, the surging delta variant has school districts and even some state lawmakers and governors rethinking policies. Over the past month or so, the governors of New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island imposed new school mask mandates; lawmakers and governors in at least two states, South Carolina and West Virginia, are reconsidering their bans.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia require everyone to wear masks in K-12 schools. Six states prohibit any such requirement, and 24 states leave the decision up to local school districts. Two states have had mask mandate bans overturned, and Florida had an overturned ban reinstated.
The evolution has been emotional and, in some cases, devastating. News reports indicate dozens of districts have temporarily closed and thousands of kids have been put into quarantine because of new COVID-19 cases. In Texas, two teachers from the same junior high school died of COVID-19 within a week.
“I think that [our teachers, principals and superintendents] are worn out by it,” said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators. “We've had physical incidents. We've had verbal attacks. … We know how to do this. Let’s get our kids safely back in school.”
Throughout the pandemic, public health officials have advised that tools such as vaccines, masks, social distancing and healthy hygiene can reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections. With only 63% of Americans ages 12 and up fully vaccinated, and those under age 12 ineligible for any of the vaccines, more protection is needed in schools, said Gigi Gronvall, senior scholar at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Despite recommendations from health officials, lawmakers and governors have passed laws and issued executive orders to prohibit cities and schools from requiring face coverings. The states include Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah. Lawmakers and governors in Arkansas, Florida, Montana, Texas and Tennessee also have made school mask requirements illegal, saying parents should have a choice in the matter.
Judges in Arkansas, Florida and Texas temporarily blocked those states from enforcing mask bans, though another court in Florida late Friday reinstated that ban as the case moves through the court system.
In Kentucky, the state Senate passed a bill Sept. 9 that would end a mask mandate issued by the state’s Board of Education, the Courier Journal reported. The bill awaits action in the state House.
At a news conference in August, McMaster encouraged South Carolina residents to get vaccinated, but he denounced mask mandates in schools.
“The new variant, the delta there, it does pose a real threat. We know that it spreads more easily,” McMaster said at the Aug. 9 conference. “But shutting our state down, closing schools and masking children who have no choice—for the government to mask children who have no choice to protect adults who do have a choice is the wrong thing to do. And we’re not going to do it.”
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened an investigation into Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah to explore whether their prohibition of indoor universal mask wearing discriminates against students with disabilities.
Despite some governors’ orders, many schools have implemented mandates anyway. And in several instances, schools were forced to close their doors because of an increase in COVID-19 cases. In Texas, the Connally Independent School District temporarily closed schools after two teachers died from COVID-19. Unsure whether there was a correlation, school officials decided to require masks following the reopening of schools, NBC News reported.
The Nampa School District in Idaho closed one of its elementary schools for two days because 30% of its staff was sick, and officials could not find substitutes. In at least 20 additional states, schools recently closed buildings or shifted to online learning as a result of outbreaks, according to District Administration, a publication for K-12 educators.
With more than 30 years in education, MaryRita Watson, the president of the Summerville Education Association in South Carolina, is the most worried she has ever been. From parent outrage at school board meetings to overcrowded classrooms to COVID-19-related deaths of at least four colleagues, she and other educators feel beaten down and unappreciated, she said. Watson said she feels like educators are seen as the “bad guy” for trying to protect kids by encouraging masks.
“I am not the bad guy. I am trying to make my classroom the safest for the kids that I am responsible for,” Watson told Stateline. “And if that makes me the bad guy, then I guess that’s the role I have to take on, but someone has to advocate for their safety. And right now, it is teachers in the classroom.”
The politicization of masks and the pandemic has caused tension and divisions in small towns, teachers and advocates told Stateline, forcing some teachers such as Watson to fear for their own safety. This week in Missouri, a fight broke out in a parking lot after the Pleasant Hill Board of Education voted unanimously to require masks, KMBC News reported.
Ashton Elementary School in Florida was placed on a short lockdown after an enraged parent warned he would leave his job to confront the principal about mask requirements. A father and two other men even threatened to restrain a principal with zip ties in Arizona after his son was sent home to quarantine.
“Those are very concerning attributes you’re seeing with these mask mandates,” said Dustin Williams, county superintendent of Pima County Schools in Arizona. “[The disruptions and altercations] are not good for education or for the health and safety and well-being [of students]. Everybody has a right to their own opinion, but you got to do it in a respectful manner.”
The decisions by local school boards not to implement masks have led to staff shortages and low morale, said Sherry East, a retired educator and president of the South Carolina Education Association.
“It’s a hot mess right now. We have a shortage of teachers, a shortage of bus drivers, a shortage of cafeteria workers. No one wants to work in the school system right now,” East said. “One of our largest districts started the year with 72 bus drivers short. One district had over 70 elementary school openings. It impacts learning because you don’t have the personnel to run your schools.”
Some state leaders have threatened to strip funding from local school districts for implementing universal masking. The U.S. Department of Education plans to step in by helping schools restore funding through a grant program. The money can be used to replace pay cuts taken by school board members or superintendents, for example.
Since schools returned this fall, anti-mask advocates in several states have taken their efforts up a notch by filing lawsuits to challenge the constitutionality of mask mandates. A group of parents, alongside Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tem Jake Corman, a Republican, sued the state to overturn the school mask mandate. The lawsuit alleges that the health secretary failed to comply with state law when she ordered the mask requirement.
In at least six other states—Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas—parents are suing to stop mask policies. The state Supreme Court in South Carolina blocked some elementary schools in Columbia from requiring masks.
For some parents, the political infighting, legal battles and campus chaos should not supersede the most important goal of all: to ensure kids are safe, healthy and educated, said Russell, the South Carolina newcomer.
“Why [are] all these adults sitting around and pointing fingers, but nobody is really having the courage to stand up and say, ‘My kid’s life is more important than your political statement,’” Russell said. “It’s life or death. My daughter’s whole class was basically wiped out for quarantine. How productive is that in education?”