When Jay School Corp. in eastern Indiana reopens next month, none of the district’s more than 3,100 students or 240 teachers will be required to wear a mask during classes.
The district is among those in Indiana planning to stop short of a mandate—pointing to a low number of local cases and public disinterest— despite the advice of public health experts, who emphasize the important role face coverings play in slowing the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Administrators nationwide are grappling with how strictly to recommend and enforce mask wearing as schools face pressure from President Donald Trump to open full time.
The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is encouraging the use of masks in public, a practice the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now strongly recommends. Some states, including Illinois and California, are requiring face coverings in response to a growing number of COVID-19 cases.
With no statewide requirement in Indiana, districts are left to make the decision, then potentially write a policy and secure enough masks to outfit students and teachers.
It’s unclear how many schools could require masks as they work to finalize reopening plans. In Indianapolis—in the county with the most COVID-19 cases and deaths—superintendents appear poised to follow new county guidance and require masks for students at least in sixth grade and above.
The decision district leaders make could affect how many students return for the fall, prompting parents to keep their children at home either because they feel the policy goes too far or doesn’t go far enough. That makes it high stakes, considering state funding is based on enrollment.
Indianapolis Public Schools parent Sherry Holmes said she will consider home-schooling options if her children’s elementary school does not require masks. She said her 5-year-old daughter is already starting to get used to them all day because they are required during day care.
“I know it’s going to be difficult for children to do, but I think it’s necessary,” she said. “Once they get used to it it’s going to feel natural, like putting on a uniform.”
Meanwhile, a Jay County district survey found that 87% of responding parents in the rural community want masks to be optional. And 38% said their children wouldn’t return to school in the fall if masks were required.
“I think parents ought to have a voice in how their schools reopen,” said Superintendent Jeremy Gulley. “I think our system really needs to function on the consent of those who are governed by it.”
But public health experts warn that schools shouldn’t base their decision based on the policy’s popularity. And waiting until the number of cases in a community begins to rise to implement more stringent protocols is too late.
“I would recommend districts don’t survey to ask if they’re OK with masks,” said Shandy Dearth, IUPUI director of undergraduate epidemiology education. “This is a public health thing, it’s about protecting kids. It’s not necessarily how educated the parent is on the importance of a mask… There’s science behind it, and the science says to wear a mask.”
A student can have the virus and unknowingly spread it to their classmates and teachers without ever showing a symptom. About 40% of the people who tested positive for COVID-19 reported no symptoms, she said. That makes wearing masks critical.
“It’s all we have right now,” Dearth said. “We don’t have a vaccine. We don’t have a good treatment.”
Federal guidance recommends that schools “teach and reinforce” the use of cloth face coverings, while noting it may be a challenge for younger students to wear them all day. The CDC says coverings should be worn by teachers and students “as feasible,” especially when social distancing isn’t possible.
Students in Delaware Community Schools, for example, will be required to wear a mask while on the school bus, but not throughout the entire day.
“There are a lot of things we can do in the school building to keep people safe,” said Director of Assessment Curriculum and Student Services Greg Kile. “That looks a little different on a school bus.”
During the school day, Kile said it could be difficult to hear a teacher who is wearing a mask. And enforcing them as part of the dress code could be difficult, he said, especially since administrators are unsure if they’ll have enough masks to provide to students.
To help administrators, the state has purchased 3 million reusable masks, which will be distributed to more than 470 district, charter, and private schools. Those schools will also receive 500 disposable masks and hand sanitizer, according to the governor’s office.
The Del-Com district has separately ordered thousands of masks, but it’s unclear when they will arrive as demand increases around the country.
“You can’t go place an order for masks right now and expect them to show up,” Kile said. “When you think about kids and over the course of a school year and the number of masks [they need], that number could get large.”
Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.