Parents react as school mask mandates lift across the country: 'I feel really nervous'

A growing number of states have removed mask mandates in schools after months of telling students, teachers and staff to mask up. Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island and Nevada — the majority of which are Democratic-leaning — announced plans last week to lift statewide school mask mandates.

The news comes as COVID-19 cases plummet across the country. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that there were 170,582 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, a big drop from the 842,108 daily cases one month ago on Jan. 14, at the height of the Omicron wave.

Still, the CDC continues to recommend that all students, staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

This puts COVID-conscious parents in a tricky spot, and there’s a mixed reaction from them about how to move forward.

A student does her work in a classroom.
A student at Robert M. Pyles STEM Academy in Stanton, Calif., on Jan. 13. (Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images) (MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Ginny is a mother of two school-age kids in Delaware, where the mask mandate will end on March 31. Both of her children are vaccinated against COVID-19, but she’s still not sure what to do. “It’s tough because we want to protect them, but we know that they can’t be masked in schools forever,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Since they’re fully vaccinated and have a low risk of complications, we will probably let them go unmasked once the mandate lifts. I feel really nervous about it, though.” Ginny (whose last name is being withheld for privacy reasons) says she has also considered the social aspect of continuing to have her kids go to school wearing masks once the mandate is lifted. “As much as I don’t like the idea of bowing to peer pressure, you still don’t want your kid to be the only one who is masked up — I worry that they’ll get picked on,” she says.

Kassie Edwards is a stepmother to four kids in Maryland, whose governor has asked the state board of education to lift the mask mandate in schools. “I think it’s a big mistake to lift the mask mandate,” she tells Yahoo Life. “We’ve already had to quarantine four times over the Christmas break.”

Mom of three Nikki Elkins lives in New Jersey, where the school mask mandate will be lifted in March. “If my 7-year-old son wasn’t vaccinated and didn’t recently test positive, I would be more concerned,” she tells Yahoo Life. “But cases are dropping, so I am hopeful. It does, however, feel like we are ripping the Band-Aid off quickly after a long two years.” Elkins says she hasn’t decided if her son will be wearing a mask or not once the mandate is lifted.

Tara, a mom of three in Washington, D.C., where lawmakers are facing pressure to lift the school mask mandate, tells Yahoo Life that she’s “in no rush” to have her children go to school unmasked. “It’s such an easy, harmless option to limit the spread,” she says. “In my observation, my kids have not seemed to have minded masking at all. They even forget to take them off in the car after school.”

Infectious disease experts recommend that families consider their individual situation before having their kids remove their masks in schools. “You need to assess the vulnerability of your household and immediate social bubble,” Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. “If everyone in your household is vaccinated and boosted, if eligible, then I think the risk of sending your kids to school without masks is low. You can start to carry on with life.”

If you live with an elderly relative or someone who is immunocompromised, or have family members who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, like those under the age of 5, he suggests that kids continue to wear masks in school. Russo also says that unvaccinated children should mask up when COVID-19 cases are high in their area. “Unvaccinated children should wear masks,” he says. “Children are not bulletproof.”

But infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that it’s time for schools to consider removing their mask mandates. “Schools have to have off-ramps for masking,” he says. “This is not going to be a perpetual state of emergency for schools. When people have access to vaccines, antivirals and monoclonal antibodies, masks become blunt tools that are no longer as important.”

Adalja points out, though, that parents are free to continue to send their kids to school in masks if they wish. “Even if a school doesn’t require masks, no one is stopping anyone from wearing a mask,” he says. “One-way masking works.”

He notes that COVID-19 cases will continue to crop up in schools, though. “There were always going to be infections in schools and people have to come to terms with the fact that there will be no COVID zero in schools — it is impossible,” Adalja says. “Masking will become an individual decision.”

Russo recommends that parents weigh the risks and benefits of sending their children to school unmasked — and to be open to modifying their decision as the COVID-19 situation in their area changes. “All of the decisions we have to make around this are a risk-benefit analysis,” he says. “It will continue to be that way.”

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