Teachers' union leader signals willingness for masks to come off: 'No one wants masks in schools'

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WASHINGTON — The debate over whether children need to wear face masks in classrooms to prevent the spread of the coronavirus took a new turn on Tuesday, with Randi Weingarten, head of the influential American Federation of Teachers, indicating that she was in favor of unmasking, provided certain metrics were met.

“I think we have to be talking about the off-ramp for masks,” Weingarten said during an appearance on MSNBC. "No one wants masks in schools,” she added some moments later. “Not teachers, not students.”

A teacher, wearing a face mask, gives students, all wearing face masks, a thumbs-up.
Lori Manz substitute-teaches a math class at Vista View Middle School in Huntington Beach, Calif. (Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Weingarten added that she was waiting for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue new guidance. She wrote to the agency and to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in November, asking them to “start a transparent process and work with educators and parents on the metrics and standards for easing indoor mask requirements without sacrificing safety.”

Weingarten’s letter has received no response from the Biden administration.

Any plan to unmask children in the fall was put on hold by the arrival of the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the virus, which forced schools across the country to temporarily close in January. Now that schools are open, whether children should learn in masks has become a pressing issue, one that has confronted local officials and the White House alike.

The CDC did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did the National Education Association, another powerful teachers’ union. Its head, Becky Pringle, has generally taken a cautious approach to schools' reopening.

The complexity of public education — in which state, local and federal imperatives often clash, as do those of unions, parents, superintendents and children — means that a coherent approach to masking is all but impossible on a national level. Some states led by Republicans, for example, have banned masks outright.

A skilled political operator fluent both in labor dynamics and national trends, Weingarten made her remarks a day after Democratic governors in New Jersey and Delaware moved to end mandatory masking, allowing individual districts to make their own decisions. The issue has become a growing concern for parents, even as some educators insist that masks keep them and their students safe.

A student wearing a face mask holds a pencil while sitting at a school desk.
A student at Robert M. Pyles STEM Academy in Stanton, Calif. (Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

With vaccination rates among teachers high and the Omicron wave apparently receding across much of the country, some believe the moment is right to revisit the controversial universal mandate.

It “doesn’t work, University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm bluntly told the New York Times in comments published on Tuesday.

But others say that given varying rates of vaccination across the country — and low uptake of booster shots — the time isn’t right to dispense with masks.

“It's shortsighted to say that things are normal when they're anything but,” Boston University public health expert Julia Raifman told Yahoo News in a phone interview. “We know that COVID spreads in crowded spaces, including schools. We know that masks reduce the spread."

A study published last fall by the CDC showed that schools in Arizona that implemented universal masking saw many fewer coronavirus cases than did schools where students went unmasked. Some, however, have called that study’s methodology and conclusions into question.

Last month’s Omicron surge saw a record number of children hospitalized, but infection rates are falling across the country, and the conversation about masks in schools has become all but unavoidable for educators. Whether that conversation descends into acrimony is another question altogether.

How are vaccination rates affecting the latest COVID surge? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.

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