The Democratic governors of four states -- New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Oregon -- plan to lift mask requirements for schools in the coming weeks, reflecting a nationwide shift away from restrictions as coronavirus caseload numbers fall and political pressures for a return to normalcy rise.
Teachers, school boards and administrators have been fighting over mask policies all school year. Most recently, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia on his first day in office banned districts from requiring masks in schools, prompting several lawsuits to allow districts to keep them in place.
In one camp are those who argue that masks are essential to slow transmission of the virus and keep schools open for in-person learning. In another are those who say the pandemic has eased enough to allow local officials to set policies -- or even for parents to decide for themselves what's best for their children.
The second argument is gaining steam as states and communities across the country move away from mandatory policies:
• New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday that the state's mask mandate for schools and child care facilities will end March 7, throwing the decision to local districts.
• Delaware Gov. John Carney said mask requirements in K-12 public and private schools, as well as child care facilities, will expire at the end of March.
• Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said he was recommending that the statewide mask mandate in schools and elsewhere expire at the end of February, which would require lawmakers to extend executive powers by about two weeks. "Each and every mayor, each and every superintendent can make that call themselves," Lamont said.
• In Oregon, led by Gov. Kate Brown, mask requirements for schools will be lifted March 31. The statewide mask requirement for indoor public places will be lifted no later than the end of March, health officials announced.
In recent weeks, statewide school mask requirements also have been lifted in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Massachusetts now allows districts to forgo face coverings if 80% of students and staff members are vaccinated. In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is considering whether to modify a statewide school mask mandate.
"That's something we get asked a lot about: 'When are masks coming off in schools?'" New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said Friday. "We'll be making some announcements in the short term as we see these numbers progressing."
Rules remain in more than a half-dozen states, including Washington, Oregon, Nevada and New Mexico, but more officials are signaling an end is near.
Once the new rules take effect, school districts will be able to decide for themselves whether to require masks. Tracking of district policies from the data firm Burbio shows a steady rise in the share not requiring masks in schools, from about 25% in early October to 35% this week.
Asked if the Newark, N.J., schools would continue to require masks, a spokeswoman suggested they would. "The mask is a part of the district's protocols," she said. Paul Brubaker, spokesperson for Paterson, N.J., schools, said the superintendent plans to consult with teachers, staff and parents before deciding.
The change in statewide policy, Murphy said Monday, is possible "given the continuing drop in new cases and hospitalizations from omicron and with all the evidence projecting a continued decline over the coming weeks."
Carney offered much the same reasoning in Delaware. "We're in a much better place than we were several weeks ago in the middle of the Omicron surge of covid-19 cases and hospitalizations," he said in a statement Monday. He also noted the end of an indoor mask mandate in the state, beginning Friday.
In Oregon, Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state medical officer and epidemiologist, said education and health officials will meet in the coming weeks to revise guidance to "ensure schools can continue operating safely and keep students in class" once the mask rule is lifted.
The March 31 deadline was selected using predictions by health scientists that covid-19-related hospitalizations will decrease to 400 or fewer by that time -- a level that Oregon experienced before the omicron variant surged.
TWO YEARS ON
The policy shifts are unfolding as the nation approaches the two-year anniversary of the wholesale shutdown of American education, a change that unfolded with stunning speed.
In early March 2020, school buildings closed for what officials believed would be a short-term pause. It took some more than a year to reopen.
When students first began returning to classrooms, masks were required in virtually all schools. But soon after, policies divided along partisan lines, with many Democratic governors directing all districts to require masks, and many Republican governors barring their districts from doing so. Many states have long left it up to the individual districts to decide.
What's striking now is the shift among Democratic governors toward allowing their school districts to decide for themselves.
"We have to learn how to live with covid," New Jersey's Murphy said Monday.
Murphy, vice chairman of the National Governors Association, said at a briefing last week following a winter meeting of the group that "the general consensus is we're on the road from a pandemic to an endemic." He added: "No one knows how straight the road is or how long it will take us," pointing to "overwhelming sentiment on both sides of the aisle" for a return to normal.
Brian Stryker, a Democratic consultant who has warned his party about its vulnerability on education issues this year, said Monday that the governors' actions are politically helpful because they put control over districts' policies closer to parents. Most important, he said, is that schools remain open.
Democrats, he said, "need to show voters that we are heading back to normal. Reducing of statewide mask mandates is a big part of that."
In the United State overall, new daily reported coronavirus cases have fallen 42% in the past week, according to data tracked by The Washington Post, while covid-related hospitalizations dropped 16%. Covid-related deaths are still ticking up -- there was a 4% increase nationwide in average daily deaths in the past week.
TEACHERS UNIONS WARY
Teachers unions, which have pushed for more protections in schools, reacted cautiously to Monday's spate of announcements, concerned that mask requirements will be lifted for political reasons.
The New Jersey Education Association, which represents more than 167,000 teachers and school staff, said in a statement that it hopes cases continue to fall, allowing districts to lift their mandates safely. But it asked that the governor reassess and be prepared to reimpose the requirement if the situation worsens.
"We are cautiously optimistic that the current statewide school mask mandate can be safely relaxed in the near future, assuming current trends continue," said a statement from the union's officers.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Monday that she wants guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about when and how schools can lift the rules. She asked the agency to provide them in November, but it has not done so. Now she said she worries policymakers could be changing the rules for the wrong reasons.
"We knew back in the fall that there needed to be an off-ramp on school mask mandates," she said. "But it has to be informed by metrics and science and not politics."
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that universal mask-wearing in schools "still remains our recommendation," but she did not fault states for dropping the requirement.
"It's always been up to school districts. That's always been our point of view and always been our policy from here," she said.
The shift in state policies comes as the national consensus shifts away from the need to protect Americans and toward a sense that the coronavirus is something people will need to learn to manage for a long time to come.
Still, polling shows public support for masks in schools, so officials suggest districts should move cautiously.
The CDC has recommended face coverings as an important part of virus mitigation, saying that with masks, schools can operate safely even during times of high virus transmission in the community.
Advocates for children with disabilities say masks are critical to protecting their children, some of whom cannot safely wear masks themselves. The American Academy of Pediatrics said Monday that its guidance recommending universal masking in schools has not changed.
Nathaniel Beers, a pediatrician at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C., who helped write the pediatrics group's school guidance, said he would like to see CDC guidelines about when to lift -- and when to reinstitute -- mask requirements. He said it's possible this would be appropriate in some communities now.
"In most jurisdictions, rushing to unmask is probably slightly premature," he said. "But we are getting closer than we have ever been."
It's important that policies respond to "objective data," such as lower incidence of the virus in a region and high vaccination rates, said Jennifer Lighter, hospital epidemiologist and pediatric infectious-disease specialist at Hassenfeld Children's Hospital at NYU Langone in New York City. "That to me is a good objective reason to go back on measures. I don't think just because everyone is tired of masks is a good reason," she said.
But others, particularly conservatives, view mask mandates as intrusive efforts to manage a decision that rightfully belongs to parents. Responding to the raft of mandates ending Monday, Virginia's Youngkin said, "We are pleased to see that other states, including New Jersey and Delaware, are following our reasoning and a path to normalcy."
The shift around masking in schools appears to be part of a watershed moment as society moves toward coexistence with the virus, said Wafaa El-Sadr, professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York City.
Still, she stressed that "we're not yet done with this virus."
Even with steps forward, there are "so many unknowns ahead of us, and we need to be prepared for the possibility of taking a step back."
Information for this article was contributed by Laura Meckler and Paulina Firozi of The Washington Post; and by Mike Catalini, Sara Burnett, Susan Haigh and Ted Shaffrey of The Associated Press.