The School Leaders and Teachers Who Took a Stand Against Bans on Mask Mandates

When states were banning mask mandates and COVID-19 cases were on the rise, school leaders and teachers across the country fought to keep their students safe.

An image of a counter-protester across the street from a rally against the Midland Public Schools (MPS) mask mandates outside the MPS administration building in Midland, Michigan.
Photo: Getty Images.

Along with the everyday stressors of managing the education of our nation's next generations, teachers and school leaders have faced unprecedented challenges brought on by the pandemic.

For instance, Nadia Hussain, a New Jersey school board member, became accustomed to bracing herself before the start of each meeting. Joshua Brown, a teacher and president of the Des Moines Education Association, received threatening letters and messages. In Fargo, North Dakota, teachers and parents who ran a Facebook page to share science-backed information from local hospitals and health departments managed comments with disinformation about COVID-19 and the efficacy of face masks.

They are just some of the advocates across the country who all supported the ability of school districts to require mask-wearing leading into the 2021–2022 school year, a safety measure that research reviews published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), among others, say slows the spread of the coronavirus.

At the time, guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for K–12 schools focused on recommendations that supported the safe return to in-person learning, which included universal mask-wearing for students, staff, teachers, and visitors as well as physical distancing. But the emphasis was on offering in-person learning, "regardless of whether all of the prevention strategies [could] be implemented at the school."

About halfway through the 2021–2022 school year, the CDC updated its guidance to recommend universal indoor masking only in counties where the COVID-19 community level, a metric that takes into account the total number of new COVID-19 cases among other variables, is deemed "high." In other words, wearing a face mask is recommended, but not required, in areas of the country that have been deemed "high risk" for COVID-19 transmission.

Despite the data and CDC's recommendations, school leaders, teachers, and others faced—and in some cases continue to face—loud criticism for their efforts to keep kids safe with mask policies. To them, it was worth it and some may be up for the challenges again in the future. "I'm willing to continue to put up with that if it means that we have any chance to keep some of our kids healthy and our staff healthy and be able to do our jobs," says Brown.

The Mask Mandate Debate

In the fall of 2021, COVID-19 cases were surging across the country. Soon after the first day school, entire school districts in Kentucky, South Carolina, and Florida, among other states, shuttered because of outbreaks. A Texas school district shut down briefly after two teachers died of COVID-19 within days of each other; the district soon moved to requiring masks.

In most states, school districts could make their own decision about face masks. In September 2021, only 10 states had statewide rules requiring them, according to the Pew Charitable Trust. And eight states had banned school districts from making masks mandatory. In some cases, those bans prompted school leaders to defy state rules or lawsuits that challenged them. But it was far from an easy fight.

In South Carolina, for example, the rule said that state funding could not be used to enforce any mask mandate, which effectively prevented schools from requiring them, says Patrick Kelly, a teacher and director of governmental affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association. State funding accounts for as much as 55 percent of most districts' budgets. School leaders feared losing those dollars if they required masks, as they were able to do in the previous school year. Instead of just dollars, however, they often paid a different price.

For instance, Kelly's school district ended up with thousands of students in quarantine, and four school districts across the state were forced to go back to an e-learning model less than a month into the school year because they simply didn't have enough staff left after sickness and quarantine protocols.

The Consequences of No Masks in Classrooms

Critics of universal mask mandates in schools often argued that individuals should have the right to decide whether to mask. But a CDC report published in September 2021 demonstrated the impact of one maskless person in a classroom. The report detailed an investigation into an outbreak triggered by an unvaccinated teacher at a California elementary school who had COVID-19 symptoms (and would later learn they were positive for COVID-19) who occasionally read to their class unmasked. Half of the students in the class were then infected.

When appropriately worn, the benefits of masks can go two ways, says Emily Sickbert-Bennett, Ph.D., director of infection prevention at UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. If you're infected, your mask protects others from aerosols that you spray while talking or coughing. When others wear one, it can help protect you from theirs.

"This [CDC] investigation illustrates, especially with the high infectivity of [some] variants, how important masks are when everyone is wearing them," says Dr. Sickbert-Bennett.

Fighting for Safety

The struggles surrounding masking in schools even went to the federal level. In August 2021, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights opened a federal investigation into five states—Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah—with statewide mask prohibitions. The agency aimed to determine whether those bans discriminated against students with disabilities who are at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and can't safely attend school in person when everybody isn't wearing a mask.

Federal investigations, however, take time, and educators who supported mask mandates didn't necessarily have time to wait. In New Jersey, Hussain had a statewide executive order on her side that mandated masks for all schools. But a contentious school board meeting in a nearby town where critics spoke out soon proved she wasn't supported by all parents in her efforts to keep students masked.

In Iowa, it became clear in July 2021, before vaccines were available to children, that COVID-19 rates were rising and state leaders weren't budging on a mask mandate ban. In response, the education association and school administrators in Des Moines collaborated on a campaign to encourage masks. The group's message was twofold: Masks keep people safe and kids in school. The campaign was a success; most students and staff chose to wear masks when school opened, says Brown.

"If we [wanted] to keep schools open as much as possible and have less chance of needing to shut a school down due to widespread absenteeism due to COVID-19, masks [were] our best tool available, especially in our elementary schools where none of the kids [had] the opportunity to get vaccinated," says Brown.

From her perch in Fargo, North Dakota, Lori Cline, spokeswoman for CARE: Community Alliance for Responsible Education and a music teacher, also got involved with the efforts at the schools. The group of teachers, parents, doctors, and others formed in the fall of 2020 when they were worried about the safety of teachers. By fall 2021, the worry shifted to students, who, unlike their teachers, were not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

On its Facebook page, CARE shares fact-based information about COVID-19 and encourages followers to talk to school board members about the need for universal masking. It's also become a gathering spot for community members. Cline took action where she could, such as advising a pregnant teacher on ways to rearrange her classroom for social distancing and where her husband could quickly get a booster COVID-19 vaccine because of a chronic health issue. Through CARE, families who supported mask-wearing could be connecting with others who had kids in the same classes, so they knew their kids wouldn't be the only ones wearing a mask at school.

The efforts that school leaders and teachers have made throughout the pandemic highlight how important it is to get involved when education and safety are on the line.

"In the end, it's not acceptable to just sit and say or do nothing," says Cline, whose husband also teaches. "We're compelled to try."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles