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NEW YORK — Major school districts around the country are allowing students into classrooms without masks for the first time in nearly two years, eliminating rules that stirred up intense fights among educators, school boards and parents throughout the pandemic.
New York City became the latest school district to do away with its mask requirement Monday and Philadelphia is poised to lift its mandate Wednesday, joining big cities such as Houston and Dallas and a number of a states that made similar moves in the last week. Chicago schools will end their mask mandate next Monday.
Parents, teachers and principals face a complicated balancing act in navigating the new rules. Some families are thrilled that their children no longer have to wear masks, while others say they're still tentative and urging their kids to keep wearing face coverings for now. Teachers and principals are caught in the middle.
In Anchorage, Alaska, School Superintendent Deena Bishop says lifting the mandate in the city's nearly 100 public schools last week was a relief after months of acrimony even though there were some bumpy patches.
Bishop says she has been made aware of a handful of comments teachers inadvertently made that "didn't sit well" with students and their parents, such as a teacher singling out a young child whose parents decided to keep them wearing a mask and another who had made a student feel guilty about their decision not to wear one.
She said the instances served as "teachable moments" to remind staff that "a choice is a choice and that we need to honor that home's choice."
"There was a lot of angst, a lot of battles in the city over wearing masks, not wearing masks," Bishop said. "So I'm glad that we've taken that fight away. All that has just subsided, and now we can go back to focus on learning."
Falling infection rates and new federal health guidance are leading most of the remaining states with statewide school mask requirements to drop the mandates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued new guidelines saying most Americans live in places where healthy people, including students, can safely take a break from wearing masks.
But those hesitant about ending school mask mandates often point to low childhood vaccination rates among American children. Only about a quarter of children ages 5 to 11 have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and about 58% of children ages 12 to 17 are inoculated, the CDC says.
New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Illinois and Delaware rescinded their statewide school mask requirements recently. New Jersey and Rhode Island dropped theirs officially Monday while California, Oregon and Washington have jointly announced they'll drop their statewide mandates effective March 12.
In many instances, the ultimate decisions are being made at the local school district level.
Officials many large cities, such as Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., have said they'll keep mask rules for now, either until vaccination rates improve among their students, or they can work out agreements with teachers unions, which have been among those most vocal about keeping the mandates in place.
After Chicago schools announced Monday that masks will no longer be required as of March 14, the city's teachers union vowed to take officials to court, saying the move will violate an agreement reached in January between the union and district to keep the mask rule through the end of the school year.
"Our city is fortunate that the numbers around the COVID-19 pandemic have shifted, with deaths, hospitalizations and positive cases low," the union said in a statement. "But CPS buildings are congregate settings where vaccination rates also remain low, especially in schools with majority Black and Brown students on the South and West sides of the city.
John Bracey, a Latin teacher at Belmont High School in suburban Boston, says he intends to keep wearing his hospital-grade N-95 respirator through the end of the school year even as his district is expected to lift its mandate next week.
The 41-year-old Bellingham resident said he and his wife have also decided to keep his two young school-age children wearing masks this week even though their district lifted the requirement Monday.
"I have major concerns on so many levels," Bracey said. "It appears to be a decision made to benefit the most privileged and leaves everyone else to their own devices. We're sacrificing the health of immunocompromised students, elderly staff and those of us with young children. I just can't find a public health or moral justification for removing them."
With California set to end its statewide school mask mandate later this week, Kerri DeNies of San Diego is worried for her 5-year-old son, Gregory, who has a rare brain and adrenal gland disease.
I hope this allows us to come back as a community and start remembering why we liked each other and saw the positives in life.
–Jason Chan, parent
DeNies said she only allows her son to go to school because of the mask requirement, making for a difficult decision in their household when the coverings become optional in their school district starting April 4.
"We know face masks work to stop the spread," DeNies said. "How is that fair to him and all the other children and teachers who are at higher risk for COVID complications?"
But across the country in Massachusetts, Melissa Bello says her two school-age children gladly removed their masks when their school district in the Boston suburb of Needham made them optional Monday.
She says her 8-year-old son has hearing loss in both ears and has been complaining of having trouble understanding people in school with everyone wearing masks the last two years.
"He's working harder everyday in school and coming home more tired," Bello said. "There's not enough consideration for those kinds of tradeoffs in these mask mandates."
Jason Chan, another a parent in Needham, said his two school-age children went in Monday still wearing masks — and likely still will through the week before the family reassesses.
He believes his children — including a 5-year-old son who has never known schooling without a mask — would be fine wearing them until the end of the school year, if it came down to it.
"Honestly, the kids have been doing better than the parents with the masks," Chan said. "I hear a lot of parents upset but kids just don't look at it the same way in terms of this civil rights issue. It's like wearing a hat or a sweater for them. They keep it on all day and they're fine."
If anything, he looks forward to the mandates going away so communities can start mending fences.
"I hope this allows us to come back as a community and start remembering why we liked each other and saw the positives in life," Chan said.