School mask mandates return, as latest covid variants rise


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Mask mandates are making a comeback in Louisville public schools. They could return to Los Angeles, after a possible decision this week. And outside of Atlanta, where classes start in a few days, they are mandatory for school employees.

This is not what school heads hoped for when they imagined the preparation for the 2022-2023 school year. But a good part of the country is seeing an increase in covid-19 cases, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For another year, educators are scrambling to adapt to the fluctuations of covid. CDC data shows “high” covid-19 “community level” – a measure of case and hospitalization rates – in hundreds of counties, as the omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants fell propagated.

“Everyone wishes we didn’t have to wear masks, but health experts recommend wearing them to keep people safe,” said Bernard Watson, spokesperson for Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia, where the community level is high and more than 20,000 employees. will be required to wear face coverings in buildings if the area remains at a high level on the first day of school, August 3. Students are strongly encouraged to wear a mask but are not included in the mandate due to a recent state law called the “Unmask Georgia Students Act,” which allows parents to decide whether their children wear masks at school. ‘school.

But while some school districts are following CDC guidelines, which recommend universal indoor masking when community levels are high, others are taking a mask-optional approach. Some school systems have not decided, hoping the virus will fade before they open.

In San Diego, school district officials mandated indoor masks on July 18, when CDC data showed San Diego County had reached a high level of covid and summer school was closed. in session. But officials said this week they have not made a decision about mask-wearing when the regular school year begins on August 29.

“Local health experts have indicated that although cases are high now, our county could be out of the ‘high’ level by the end of August when classes resume,” San Unified School District officials said. Diego in an email.

Critics condemned San Diego’s decision. “The transmission that parents fear is the mask mandates that are spreading across the country,” said Sharon McKeeman, an outspoken opponent of masks and founder of the advocacy group Let Them Breathe.

In nearby Los Angeles, health officials were considering a county-wide indoor mask mandate for a list of settings, including schools, after the area reached a high community level of covid at the mid-July. But on Tuesday, officials said improving conditions could delay the decision, which was expected on Thursday.

The bar for reimposing mask mandates is rising higher and higher

Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether the CDC plans to release more guidance for schools when they reopen. A CDC spokeswoman declined to say. “We are constantly evaluating our guidance and as new scientific evidence emerges, necessary updates are made,” CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in a statement. The most recent recommendations came in a May CDC update.

Daniel Domenech of AASA, the national association of school principals, said intense political pressure affects decision-making. Even in high-risk areas, “there is such resistance from parents, from the community, from politicians… that a lot of people just throw their hands up and say : ‘Good, no masks. ”

Masking has been a feature of school life for most of the past two school years, but is increasingly seen as a choice, not a requirement, in a time of widespread vaccinations and testing and rampant fatigue. masks.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said it’s clear that masking has detrimental consequences in the classroom – when students with asthma struggle to breathe, for example, or when children can’t pick up teacher signals because they can’t see their whole faces.

“I fully understand both sides of this – the side that says they’re a barrier to learning and the side that says when the omicron variant increases, we have to have it,” Weingarten said. Still, she said, “the wars over masking have greatly undermined teaching and learning.”

In Nashville, where the community level is high, schools will open Aug. 8 with optional masking, spokesman Sean Braisted said. Tennessee had sought to ban mask mandates, but a federal judge banned the state from doing so. The school board last voted in February to encourage but not require the use of masks, Braisted said.

In Kentucky, the school system of 96,000 students in Jefferson County – where Louisville is located – chose from day one to follow CDC advice, so when it reached a high level of covid last week, the A mask mandate has been revived for buildings and school buses, spokesman Mark Hebert said. School starts on August 10.

“Universal masking is required until Jefferson County is no longer at the red (high) level,” school officials wrote in a July 22 message to families and staff. “We will update you on the status of the masking at the end of each week.”

In Clayton County, Georgia, with a high community level of covid, the indoor mask mandate includes employees, contractors and visitors starting July 25, spokeswoman Jada Dawkins said. Superintendent of Schools Morcease Beasley said he didn’t want anything to get in the way of him being able to welcome students from day one, she said. If state law permitted, Beasley would require students to also wear masks, Dawkins said.

“Every community is different,” said John Heim, executive director of the National School Boards Association. “While one community may feel that masks are necessary, another may not. That’s why masking decisions should be made at the local level, based on local health data and feedback from parents, students, educators, and other community members.

CDC relaxes mask guidelines in February 2022

In Maryland, the mask tenure in Prince George’s County, the state’s second-largest school system, was the longest in the state, ending only July 1. But the coming school year is different: the school system has decided to be optional. The county is at an “average” covid community level, according to CDC data.

Caitlin Rivers, epidemiologist and senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, stressed that state and local decisions will fluctuate in response to changing case numbers. Policies will be rolled back when the numbers drop, she said, “but if it escalates enough to strain the health system, for example, then now is the time to reintroduce checks.”

And despite pandemic fatigue, high levels of covid in the community should mean school masking and surveillance testing, said Meagan Fitzpatrick, epidemiologist and infectious disease transmission modeler at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. .

“Schools should not ignore that covid exists,” Fitzpatrick said. “If schools don’t take action to interrupt covid, [then] the covid will interrupt the school year.

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