Teachers weigh in as states end school mask mandates

Children and parents are seen walking to school in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Parents and children in Brooklyn, N.Y., on the first day of lifting the indoor mask mandate for Department of Education schools K-12, on March 7. (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

An increasing number of states have lifted their mask mandates in schools after months — and even years — of having them in place. New York, Delaware, California, Oregon, Washington as well as select districts across the United States have all loosened their masking rules within days of one another.

Even New York City, which has had a state mask mandate in place for schools for months, lifted its requirement for kindergarten through 12th graders in Department of Education schools on Monday. "Masks will be optional in indoor settings and will be available for anyone who wants to wear one," the New York City mayor's office announced on Twitter.

The change comes on the heels of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issuing looser masking guidance in late February. Now the CDC recommends that people know the level of COVID-19 transmission in their local communities and wear masks when case counts reach a certain threshold. (The CDC also included a "county check" to help people keep tabs on their local case counts.)

It's only natural to wonder what teachers and school staff think, given that they're in the thick of things. Overall, many are in favor of the lifted mandates, although some say they plan to mask up under certain circumstances.

Melissa Jones, a fourth-grade teacher in Indiana, tells Yahoo Life that she's "been waiting for this time to come." Jones works in the Noblesville Schools district, which lifted its mask mandate on Feb. 22.

"I have seen relief in students and staff in the mandate being lifted," she says. "The benefit is that I can actually see my kids’ faces and expressions that have been, for the most part, absent for two years. The kids are happy and smiling more and are generally relieved to have their families decide."

Jones says that she still masks up at certain times during the day, though. "I mainly don't wear a mask in the classroom because I like the fact that my students can see my expressions when I teach, when I smile and when I read to them, which has been absent since the pandemic," she says. "When I'm in a larger public area like the hallway or cafeteria, I put my mask on simply due to the larger crowd." Jones says that her school "has been supportive of individual decisions and has not pressured any of us one way or another," something that she has "appreciated."

Elizabeth, who withheld her last name for privacy reasons, is a teacher in Delaware who also masks on and off during the day. She tells Yahoo Life that she wears a mask "when I work closely with a student or when I am in packed classes." Otherwise she takes her mask off.

"I feel more comfortable not wearing my mask in certain situations than in others," she says. "If someone is coughing, I pull it up." Elizabeth says that some of her colleagues have continued to wear masks full-time in school, especially those who care for older parents or are immunocompromised.

Related video: Montgomery Co. Board of Education lifts school mask mandate

Elizabeth, who is not vaccinated against COVID-19, says that it's "ironic" that her vaccinated colleagues seem more concerned about the lifted mandate. "A lot of our staff is not vaccinated," she points out. She says that she plans to continue to carry her mask with her at all times, just in case.

Lauren Barrett is a teacher who works with students who are deaf and hard of hearing in North Carolina. "While I had no problem obliging by the mask mandates in our school for the past two years, I am elated that the mask mandate has been lifted," she tells Yahoo Life. "I am in a unique situation where I teach students who are deaf and hard of hearing who rely on facial expressions and lip-reading to communicate."

Barrett says she's used clear masks in the past but notes that "the majority of my students' teachers and peers do not wear them, making listening fatigue even more rampant for my students." Even in those who wear clear masks, "speech can be garbled and key facial expressions hidden," she points out. Ultimately, she says, "I am excited to not wear a mask anymore to make communication easier for my students."

McKenna Reitz is a high school teacher in Ohio whose school just lifted its mask mandate. "Personally, I am vaccinated, boosted — along with my entire family — and had COVID at the end of August 2021, and with the numbers continuing to drop I have made the decision to not wear a mask," she tells Yahoo Life. "It is amazing to feel my entire mood and energy shift in my classroom as I continue to educate my students."

Not everyone is on board with mask mandates lifting, though. Teachers' unions in both Los Angeles and Chicago are pushing back against the end of their mask mandates. The Chicago Teachers Union recently shared a letter online it sent to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in which it called the move to lift the mask mandate "extremely troubling" and a "clear violation" of an agreement that Lightfoot reached with the union in January over safety concerns in schools. "If Chicago Public Schools moves toward making masks optional without bargaining to do so safely, this refusal to honor our agreement will have consequences," the letter reads.

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), a union representing 35,000 teachers in L.A., is also fighting its county's decision to end school masking on March 12. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second-largest school district in the country, dropped its outdoor mask mandate on Feb. 12. However, its indoor mask mandate remains in place. Los Angeles Unified students are currently required to wear a non-cloth mask with a nose wire indoors "at all times."

“While declining COVID rates are promising, educators agree with county guidance strongly recommending that masking stay in place in schools," UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz tells Yahoo Life in a statement. "LAUSD schools have been the safest and most well equipped in the country because educators and families united to demand critical health and safety protocols. These protocols, like indoor masking, have protected tens of thousands of educators and more than half a million students, along with their families. It is premature to discuss removing these health and safety measures while there are still many unvaccinated youth in our early education programs and schools."

But national teachers' unions seem ready for a change. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, tells Yahoo Life that her organization "welcomes" the lifting of universal masking in schools. "We believe that our public health policies should be anchored in common sense, balancing the need to get back to regular life using the pandemic-era tools that keep us safe—including vaccinations, boosters and ventilation—with the need to continue protecting the immunocompromised and vulnerable," Weingarten says. She notes that "many students and educators struggle with COVID-19 restrictions" and are happy to end them.

Weingarten urges people to have compassion for the choices of others when it comes to masking. "Some parents, students and educators will still choose to wear masks, and there should be no stigma for those who do so," she says. "We have a duty to protect vulnerable populations and their right to attend school in person."

Jones agrees and stresses that "every family has the right to either wear a mask or not, and no child or family should be judged or criticized for their decision. I have students who wear their masks full-time and those who don't, and the decisions are treated with mutual respect."

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