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Schools Struggle With Omicron as Mask Controversy Continues

The COVID-19 variant is creating a new round of safety challenges for parents and teachers. Masking can prevent transmission, but some are working to limit its use.

Students standing outside a school wearing masks.
Students at a Columbia, Mo., high school organized a walkout after a school board decision to rescind a mask mandate.
The explosive omicron variant is upending the post-holiday plans of parents, teachers and students. According to data collected by Burbio, far more schools are closing or going virtual for at least part of the week than at any previous time in the current school year.

How much more contagious is omicron? According to data collected by the Mayo Clinic, the current average positivity rate for COVID-19 tests is 27.9 percent, compared to 5.4 percent in November. This argues against any suggestion that the current rise in cases is simply a reflection of an increase in testing.

Omicron seems to cause less severe illness than previous variants, but this is offset to some extent by its extreme transmissibility. As of mid-January, the number of COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals was greater than at any time since the beginning of the pandemic.

Every stakeholder in the education sector recognizes how important it is to offer in-person instruction. Parents need to work, students need to catch up on lost learning and be with their friends, and communities depend on school services such as food and counseling in addition to instruction (and, in the case of younger students, child care).

COVID-19 breakouts threaten the stability of both school operations and the community, whether through a student who becomes ill, an exposed classmate or teacher forced to quarantine or contagion from schools into households. Masking, an uncomplicated health measure with demonstrated ability to slow the spread of the virus, would seem to be in the best interests of all, but it hasn’t been embraced by all states.

Inhalation of air with fine droplets and particles containing the virus is a primary source of contagion, and in view of this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends indoor masking for all persons in schools who are over the age of 2. However, fewer than 4 in 10 U.S. states have school mask mandates in place. A third allow districts to set their own guidelines, and a handful have forbidden schools to require mask wearing.

In late 2021, a team of researchers, which included Arizona State University (ASU) scientists as well as public health officials, published the results of a study designed to gauge the real-world impact of school masking. They looked at nearly 1,000 schools in Maricopa and Pima counties and compared the likelihood of COVID-19 outbreaks in schools that started the school year with mask requirements and in those that did not.

Even after adjusting for factors that might make transmission more likely, such as school size or case rates in the community served by a school, they found that outbreaks were 3.5 times (350 percent) more likely in schools without mask requirements.

The study was conducted before the emergence of the omicron variant, says Mac McCullough, a faculty member in the ASU College of Health Solutions and one of the authors of the school study. “It certainly seems that masks may be even more important under omicron than delta — that’s not a finding from our study, it’s just putting two pieces of data together and making a best guess at what might happen.”

Legislating Against Masks

A number of bills are currently before state legislatures that aim to limit the use of masks in some way. Most were introduced before the CDC announced at the beginning of December that the first omicron case had been confirmed in the U.S.

It’s too early to know how much current trends will affect support for these measures. Alabama HB 18, which would give parents or guardians of K-12 students in public schools the right to “opt out” of mask requirements for schools or school buses, was introduced in January 2022.

A Missouri “School Freedom Act” forbids mask requirements in public and charter schools. A “Wellness Scholarship Program” proposed in Oklahoma would provide a scholarship to a private school if a parent or legal guardian objects to a public school requirement for their child to wear a mask.

This approach has been mirrored in other states. A Tennessee bill would extend access to an education savings account to students at schools that impose mask mandates (with the exception of those resulting from legally binding orders). A Pennsylvania bill, referred to an education committee on Jan. 11, provides grants to parents who find that masking requirements have the effect of “substantially interfering with a student’s educational performance, opportunities or benefits.”

While proposals that limit the use of masking might offer a sort of freedom to individual students, the preventive effects of masking could expand their access to in-person instruction by reducing the prevalence of outbreaks, quarantines, teacher illness or school closures. “I have yet to see much evidence that would suggest that having fewer mitigation policies in place would lead to better outcomes,” says McCullough.

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Governing Staff Writer Zoe Manzanetti contributed to this report.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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