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

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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.
Credit: Getty Images.

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

They are just some of the advocates across the country who all support the ability of school districts to require mask-wearing, a safety measure that the National Academy of Sciences and the Journal of the American Medical Association, among others, say slows the spread of the coronavirus. The ABC Science Collaborative, based at the Duke University School of Medicine, looked at data from 100 local education agencies and about 14 charter schools in North Carolina and found that "strict adherence to masking" mitigates COVID-19 spread and makes it possible to safely hold school in-person.

But, despite the data, school leaders, teachers, and others are facing louder criticism for their efforts to keep kids safe. To them, it's worth it. "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 this year and be able to do our jobs," says Brown.

The Mask Mandate Debate

As a new school year begins, the highly contagious delta variant is causing COVID-19 rates to surge across the country. Soon after the first day, 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 is now requiring masks.

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

In South Carolina, for example, the rule says that state funding can't be used to enforce any mask mandate, which effectively prevents 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 fear losing those dollars if they require masks, which they were able to do in the spring. Now, schools are paying a different price.

"Without that universal masking requirement in place, we're about to exceed the total number of students that contracted COVID-19 compared to all of last school year," says Kelly, whose school started in late August. "We have literally had thousands of students in quarantine. There are four different districts across the state that have already had to go to an e-learning model because they simply didn't have enough staff left after sickness and quarantine protocols."

The teachers association is pushing the state to let local school districts set their own masking requirements. "We want local districts to have that autonomy," he says.

Consequences of No Masks in Classrooms

Critics of universal mask mandates in schools often argue that individuals should have the right to decide whether to mask. But a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study demonstrates the impact of one maskless person in a classroom. Last spring, an unvaccinated teacher at a California elementary school who had COVID-19 symptoms and would later learn they were infected with the delta variant read to their class unmasked. Half of the students were then infected.

The benefits of masks 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, you're protected from theirs.

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

Fighting for Safety

Proponents of universal masking say the California example only bolsters their arguments. And in early September, 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 aims to determine whether those bans discriminate 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 support mask mandates say the need is now. In New Jersey, Hussain has a statewide executive order on her side that mandates masks for all schools. But after a contentious school board meeting in a nearby town where critics spoke out, she's on edge. "Every time I have a board of education meeting, I get worried. I come prepared," says Hussain, who is also senior campaign director for MomsRising, which recently opposed mask mandate bans. "I don't know what's going to happen."

In Iowa, it became clear in July 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 is twofold: Masks keep people safe and kids in school. The campaign is a success; most students and staff are now wearing masks, says Brown.

"If we want 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 are our best tool available, especially in our elementary schools where none of the kids have the opportunity to get vaccinated," says Brown.

From her perch in Fargo, North Dakota, Lori Cline, spokeswoman for CARE: Community Alliance for Responsible Learning and a music teacher, agrees. The group of teachers, parents, doctors, and others formed last fall when they were worried about the safety of teachers. Now, with vaccines available and the delta variant's spread triggering an increase in pediatric hospitalizations, they're worried about students. In North Dakota, districts can decide whether to require masks, and many are not.

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. In recent weeks, Cline advised a pregnant teacher on ways to rearrange her classroom for social distancing and where her husband can quickly get a booster COVID-19 vaccine because of a chronic health issue. Through CARE, families who support mask-wearing also are connecting with others who have kids in the same classes, so they know they won't be the only ones wearing a mask at school.

"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."