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Some districts are returning to mask requirements as COVID cases rise

For many school leaders, the past two years have been pandemic Groundhog Day. With the recent return of mask requirements in some districts facing another onslaught of COVID-19 cases, that sentiment isn’t going away anytime soon.

School districts near Boston, Pittsburgh and Portland, Maine, for example, have made headlines in recent weeks for reinstating mask requirements amid a surge in cases in some locations across the country, putting communities in the center’s “high risk” for driving disease control and prevention. Category. The CDC recommends that people wear masks indoors and in public if they live in a Red community.

“It feels awful,” said John Provost, superintendent of Northampton Public Schools in Northampton, Mass., which reinstated a mask mandate on May 10. “This has been an incredibly trying time for our staff, for our families, for all of the support systems that are embedded in the district. I sincerely hoped that we would never be in this place again.”

The Northampton School District had 64 cases among staff and students as of May 4. By May 6, that number had risen to 139 in the district of about 2,700 students, Provost said.

The decision to require masks has become highly localized, with nearly all states dropping mask requirements for schools. But districts in some states don’t have that option, even as cases increase.

Five states — Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia — ban mask mandates. Six other states — Arizona, Arkansas, Tennessee, Iowa, South Carolina and Texas — have tried to ban a mask mandate, but their attempts have been blocked or suspended entirely by federal judges, or are not enforcing the mandates while awaiting court rulings, it said Education Mask Requirement Tracker of the Week.

Hawaii is the only state with an ongoing mask requirement for schools, set to phase out after the summer.

Increasing number of cases behind return of mandates

After requiring masks throughout March and April, the Portland, Maine school district brought back its mask mandate on May 12. Superintendent Xavier Botana said it was an easy decision after watching cases in the district of 6,500 students climb from 26 in early April to 143 on May 8.

The rise in cases was linked to the CDC’s decision to move Cumberland County, where Portland is located, from a yellow “moderate risk” area to a red “high risk” classification. Cumberland is one of 137 U.S. counties classified as high risk, according to the CDC’s COVID-19 case tracker.

Botana cited the CDC’s guidance on masking as influencing his decision.

Botana and Provost in Northampton hope the mask requirements will minimize disruption to learning in their districts. Neither district has had to close schools in recent weeks, but both superintendents were nervous as other school districts had closed their doors.

The Brooklin School in Brooklin, Maine, switched to distance learning May 3-6 after 30 percent of the school community with COVID-19 symptoms dropped out, according to a letter posted on the school’s website. In Northampton, as of May 13, a primary school had 18 off-site staff. Not all of those employees had contracted the virus, but Provost believes the rise in cases has contributed to staff absences.

“When you consider the potential employee absenteeism that could arise if [the COVID-19] The trend continues, it really threatens the ability to keep schools running, in our view,” Provost said.

Despite rising cases, the majority of schools across the country remain mask-free. Kaweeda Adams, superintendent for the Albany City School District in New York, said the decision to return to masks would ultimately come down to guidance from the Albany County Department of Health.

The health department had not given the district this guidance as of Monday. Albany County was in the red zone as of Friday, and the CDC ranks all of New York State as either medium or high risk.

Although the masks are optional, most students and staff wear them, Adams said. The district has taken other COVID mitigation measures, such as widespread testing, quarantine, and hygiene classes for students.

Adams said the 9,000-student district has an average of 13 cases per day.

“Right now parents are worried, even our students are worried about the rising cases,” Adams said. “My message would be that we need to make sure we are following established COVID protocols and that masks are encouraged.”

Prepare pushback

Every headmaster knows the drill by now. With the change in COVID-19 guidelines comes resistance.

Both Provost and Botana have heard complaints about the decisions to return to masks. At a May 12 Northampton School Committee meeting, some parents opposed the mandate, questioning its legality, raising concerns about equal treatment for hard-of-hearing students and asking, “Where’s the endgame here?”

Despite vocal opposition, Provost and Botana are confident most of their communities will support the return to masks. Both superintendents have developed a strategy of referencing data when speaking to people who disagree with their decisions.

In letters to their school district communities, both superintendents cited advice and recommendations from public health officials as the reason for the return to masks.

“It’s the way we’ve tried to make decisions throughout the pandemic,” Botana said. “There’s nothing here that you wouldn’t expect from us.”

Neither Botana nor Provost want the mask requirement to remain in place for long. Both counties have their last day of school in mid-June, and superintendents are hoping the case counts will allow them to lift the mandates before the summer.

“This is another corner on what has been a very winding road so far,” said Botana. “Hopefully it’s the last one. I’ll knock on wood as I say this because I’ve said it many, many times.”

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