With Masks On or Off, Schools Try to Find the New Normal

Despite some turmoil, a vast majority of students have been in classrooms full-time and mostly uninterrupted this fall. Now, educators debate what’s next.

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When schools fully reopened, the Delta variant drove many worries: Would crowded classrooms run up infection rates? Would outbreaks keep many schools closed? Could there be a normal academic year — the first since the pandemic began?

The news so far has been reassuring: A vast majority of the nation’s 50 million public school students have been in classrooms, full-time and mostly uninterrupted, this fall — whether students are masked or unmasked, teachers vaccinated or not. In fact, infection rates declined 35 percent nationally through the month of September, as many schools opened their doors.

Students in Miami were excited to be back in class, said Alberto M. Carvalho, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. “Things are fairly normal in Miami,” he said, “despite the headlines.”

Still, it hasn’t always been pretty. Parents protested at school board meetings over mask mandates, or the lack of them. Families had to scramble because of stay-at-home orders. And virus-infected students and teachers prompted worries about the possibility for a spread in schools.

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In Florida, there have been fights over masks. But in Miami, things have seemed “fairly normal,” said Alberto M. Carvalho, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Yet in the sometimes chaotic reopening, there has been dramatic progress. Virus-driven school closures declined steeply from the end of August to late September, from about 240 a week to about 25 a week, according to a survey by Burbio, a company that has monitored district responses to the pandemic. Many districts have relaxed quarantining guidelines, allowing more students to remain in classrooms. And three-quarters of the nation’s 200 largest school districts began October with a mask mandate.

More progress may be made, given that Pfizer and BioNTech asked federal regulators on Thursday to authorize emergency use of their vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.

Now schools face the question of what comes next. In conservative areas like Wyoming, with fewer safety measures, some schools want to figure out how to encourage more people to get vaccinated. In parts of Georgia that have started requiring masks in schools, there is debate over how much it will help. And in liberal districts like Boston, where infection rates are low, some parents are beginning to question how long masking will be necessary.

These debates reflect a larger societal question: How should we live with Covid, since it appears to be here to stay?

What’s causing all the confusion, the infighting, the disagreement — it’s really a lack of goal setting,” said Joseph G. Allen, a Harvard University expert on maintaining health inside buildings, including schools. “Zero Covid in schools? Well, that may not be possible.”

Wyoming

Where Masks Are Scarce

Homecoming dances have been canceled. So have athletic events.

But Wyoming, a deeply conservative state, has taken a mostly hands-off approach to schools this fall, despite having one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation. Nearly every county is experiencing an extremely high risk of infection.

The state has recommended masks, and in the absence of masks, quarantining unvaccinated students exposed to the virus. But local school boards are calling the shots. And a majority have chosen not to mask.

In Natrona County, where masks are optional, 693 students — about 5 percent — were kept home between Sept. 11 and Sept. 24. And in Sweetwater County School District 1, another mask-optional district, 4 percent of students and 5 percent of employees have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the school year, though case counts declined last week.

Though Sweetwater does not perform in-school testing, the infection rate is relatively high compared to some heavily vaccinated regions with regular surveillance testing, which have shown school positivity rates under 1 percent this fall.

Some school boards in the state are trying to encourage vaccinations. Campbell County is offering $300 to staff members who get vaccinated by Dec. 1 and additional sick leave to vaccinated teachers who contract breakthrough cases. But the incentives have been divisive.

Despite everything, Wyoming classrooms are filled, just like last year.

Nicole Bolton, director of human resources at Sweetwater, said she did not have data on how many students had missed school because of the virus. But day to day, she noted, it did not feel like many students were absent.

“Nothing is normal after Covid,” she said. “But there is more sense of normalcy than there was last year, by far.”

Georgia

Hoping That Masks Can Make a Difference

In Bibb County, Ga., about 80 miles south of Atlanta, Kayla Harden 17, put on her mask to start her senior year at Southwest High School in August. She was eager to be among friends; virtual classes left her feeling isolated last year.

But after a spike in cases, her school closed its doors for two weeks of remote learning. “I was kind of afraid that they were going to extend it,” Kayla said. “I really wanted to come back.”

She, along with about 23,000 students across the county, returned to class on Sept. 20. When her school kicked off “spirit week” recently, the masks didn’t seem to interfere with students’ themed outfits — there was a 90s day, a twins day and a team jersey day.

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Parents spoke for and against mask requirements outside of the Cobb County School District headquarters in Marietta, Ga., in August. The district decided against a mask mandate.Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

Masks are one of several measures that Curtis Jones Jr., the superintendent of Bibb County, hopes will keep the school doors open this year. Last year, school unfolded in fits and starts: Attempts to pursue a hybrid model were interrupted by bouts of all-virtual learning when coronavirus case numbers in the county got too high.

This year, he said, “We are requiring our students to wear masks, we have three feet of distance between desks inside classrooms, and about 75 percent of my staff has gotten the vaccine.”

Elsewhere in Georgia — where Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, has allowed districts to determine their own protocols — the efficacy of masks has become a point of contention. In Cobb County, unlike other districts in the Atlanta area, there is no mask mandate.

The district’s superintendent, Chris Ragsdale, defended the policy last month at a school board meeting. Mr. Ragsdale said his district had seen Covid cases “drop dramatically.”

The State of Vaccine Mandates in the U.S.

Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the F.D.A. granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for mandates in both the public and private sectors. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.Schools. California became the first state to issue a vaccine mandate for all educators and to announce plans to add the Covid-19 vaccine as a requirement to attend school, which could start as early as next fall. Los Angeles already has a vaccine mandate for public school students 12 and older that begins Nov. 21. New York City’s mandate for teachers and staff, which went into effect Oct. 4 after delays due to legal challenges, appears to have prompted thousands of last-minute shots.Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get vaccinated. Mandates for health care workers in California and New York State appear to have compelled thousands of holdouts to receive shots.Indoor activities. New York City requires workers and customers to show proof of at least one dose of the Covid-19 for indoor dining, gyms, entertainment and performances. Starting Nov. 4, Los Angeles will require most people to provide proof of full vaccination to enter a range of indoor businesses, including restaurants, gyms, museums, movie theaters and salons, in one of the nation’s strictest vaccine rules.At the federal level. On Sept. 9, President Biden announced a vaccine mandate for the vast majority of federal workers. This mandate will apply to employees of the executive branch, including the White House and all federal agencies and members of the armed services.In the private sector. Mr. Biden has mandated that all companies with more than 100 workers require vaccination or weekly testing, helping propel new corporate vaccination policies. Some companies, like United Airlines and Tyson Foods, had mandates in place before Mr. Biden’s announcement.

He pointed to data showing that for school-age children, the rate of reported cases in Cobb was similar to those in counties that required masks, including Fulton, Gwinnett and DeKalb.

But the data may not include all cases of Covid, and some parents disagree with Mr. Ragsdale. “There needs to be a sensibility that we are expecting the worst, not hoping for the best,” said Jenny Peterson, a mother of two school-age children in Marietta, the county seat.

Massachusetts

Masked, Vaccinated and Looking for the Off Ramp

In the Boston area, mask wearing is just one of many protocols.

Backed by the state, both urban and suburban schools have instituted a panoply of safety measures, including staff vaccine mandates, in-school surveillance testing, contact tracing and quarantines. A new state program known as “test to stay” allows students who come in close contact with people who have tested positive to remain in school if they consent to daily rapid testing.

Administrators and union leaders in the Boston Public Schools say that for the most part, they are thrilled with how the school year is going, especially because schools were closed much of last year.

As of last week, there had been just 118 confirmed coronavirus cases among 60,000 students and staff members. From the start of the school year until Sept. 24, 173 students had been sent home to quarantine; some would have been able to stay in class had their parents consented to virus testing.

The reassuring data echoes that from other big cities with strict mitigation measures and relatively high vaccination rates. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which serves 460,000 students, there were 803 active virus cases on Oct. 6, just two of which were linked to in-school transmission. In New York City, the nation’s largest school district, only a single school out of 1,876 has been forced to temporarily close because of an outbreak.

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Students in Alta High School in Sandy, Utah, which has a test-to-stay protocol that allows students who come into close contact with people who test positive for the coronavirus to remain in the classroom.Credit…Kim Raff for The New York Times

One question for Boston and the surrounding suburbs is when to ease up. Massachusetts has cleared the way for vaccinated middle and high school students to unmask, if 80 percent of students and staff in a school are vaccinated. The district, though, said it does not plan to do so, even as some parents have pushed to end the mask mandate.

It is premature to discuss lifting precautions, said Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, adding, “Low numbers are better than high numbers, and even lower numbers are even better.”

The nearby school district in suburban Newton also said it has no plan to relax the mask mandate. The district boasts high vaccination rates and has leading public health experts from Brown and Harvard serving on its medical advisory board.

“We are aware that masking is not ideal,” said David Fleishman, the superintendent. But given that Massachusetts has largely banned remote schooling, the best way to keep students learning, he said, is “to be a little more cautious.”

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