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Parents say mask-optional policies leave out high-risk students

After South Carolina banned schools last spring from mandating masks, Amanda McDougald Scott removed her immunocompromised 5-year-old son from the Greenville County School District and enrolled him in a private eschool.

But McDougald Scott felt strongly that public schools should be able to require masks to protect children with disabilities. So she joined eight other parents and two advocacy organizations in August in suing GOP Gov. Henry McMaster, state officials and seven other school districts over a state budget provision that prevented school districts from using state funds to impose mask mandates. After a legal battle, a federal appeals court in January allowed the provision to stand, in a victory for the state officials.  

“Some parents never actually got any reasonable accommodations,” McDougald Scott said. “It’s not even just about [my son]. It’s about all children in South Carolina. There’s so many great things about [Greenville County Schools], but I have a lot of pause when it comes to what is going to be allowable and what is going to be acceptable moving forward if there is another variant.”

Over the past year, mostly Republican lawmakers and governors across the country have enacted bans on school mask mandates, arguing that parents should have a say on mask-wearing for their kids. This session, more states have passed or considered such laws.

But parents of immunocompromised children fear a new COVID-19 surge could put their kids at risk and that the proposed legislation may further isolate their children. They worry their kids will feel set apart from their maskless peers, and some would pull their kids out of school if there’s an uptick in cases.

No states currently require masks in schools, following updated guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that masks aren’t needed in K-12 and early education settings in areas with a low or medium community transmission. Despite that, parents of immunocompromised children say they want schools to be able to require masks because of concerns over future surges, close contact in schools and places with low vaccination rates among students.

Public health experts generally recommend that schools set their policies based on their latest local COVID-19 data. Decisions on lifting mask requirements in school settings should depend on many factors such as community transmission, population immunity levels and vaccine eligibility, said Aubree Gordon, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan.

“Everybody spent the last two years with a lot of focus on [COVID-19], and there's some people who are kind of being left behind—there are immunocompromised people, there are people who cannot take the vaccine or individuals who are really high risk,” she said. “I would like to see that their community comes together around them and helps to protect them instead of arguing whether you should wear masks.”

Mask disagreements

Recent CDC data shows relatively low rates of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations for children up to age 17. But children still can have major health problems from the disease and spread it to family and community members. Several studies have found that schools with universal masking policies had lower COVID-19 incidence levels than those with optional masking.

Because of their weakened immune systems, students who are immunocompromised are more at risk for serious illness from COVID-19 even if they are vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Ava Bedaque, a high school sophomore in Montgomery County, Maryland, said students’ voices should be heard about masking policies. During the pandemic, Bedaque was diagnosed with fibromyalgia—a condition that causes widespread pain, fatigue and emotional distress. She chose to double mask to protect herself at school.

Throughout the pandemic, Bedaque said she and her classmates have been crammed together in classrooms without air filters and some students went without wearing masks before the district lifted its mask mandate on March 8.

“My parents are almost in their 60s. My mother is a cancer survivor, so it’s very important to me that they don't get COVID-19,” said Bedaque, who is fully vaccinated and boosted. “They [the school district] have capitulated to the loudest minority of anti-maskers, of anti-vaxxers … and I think that they need to understand that there's a lot of us who may not be as loud as them, but our lives are just as important.”

The Montgomery County Public Schools district did not respond to requests for comment.

Some states aren’t allowing school districts to make masking decisions. Five states have bans that prohibit mask mandates in schools, and six other states have bans that have been blocked, suspended or are not being enforced, according to Education Week.

More states have considered banning mask mandates this session. In North Carolina, the legislature failed to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of that state’s bill. Under proposed bills in New Hampshire and West Virginia, parents would have the choice to sue if schools are found in violation.

Kentucky state Rep. Lynn Bechler, a Republican opposed to mask mandates, introduced a similar bill in his state. It would allow parents of children in K-12 schools and child care settings as well as students in colleges and universities to decide on wearing facial coverings. He said he has heard concerns from parents of students with disabilities but felt all students would be isolated one way or another. He said some students who oppose mask wearing felt isolated around groups of students who wore masks.

“My thought is if the masks work, if vaccines work, then the people and those who are immunocompromised, they wear the mask and get the vaccine and they would be fine with regard to isolation. That goes both ways,” Bechler told Stateline. “I don’t put a whole lot of stock in the isolation argument.” The House passed Bechler’s bill, but the Senate failed to advance it.

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Some state teacher union officials say such bills aren’t necessary and potentially put more kids in danger if there were another surge.

Some schools don’t have proper ventilation in their buildings or mitigation in place to alleviate the risks, said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. Morgan said her state should follow CDC guidelines, although she still thinks masks should be worn in schools.

Morgan dismissed some lawmakers’ argument that infection rates are low among children, so masks shouldn’t be mandated.

“My response is there are 34 children in Georgia, to this point, who have passed away from COVID,” she said. “And while you say that’s so minuscule it does not exist, it does to that child's family. I think we need some empathy and caring for not only ourselves, but for others.”

‘The wrong message’

Some parents of immunocompromised students say anti-mask mandate laws meant to give parents choices actually limit theirs.

Frances Mierzwa-Parr, an Iowa mother of twin 7-year-old boys, filed a lawsuit last fall against Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and state officials for their ban on mask mandates. Enforcement of the law halted in the fall after a judge's ruling in a different lawsuit over the ban, and some districts then reinstated mandatory masking. That lawsuit is ongoing.

Mierzwa-Parr said she was concerned for her boys, although they are healthy, and other students who are immunocompromised. She said she doesn’t trust state officials to “do the right thing” when a surge hits and wants local schools to have control over policies.

“I think [the mask ban] sent the wrong message. It’s just going to prolong the issues we’re dealing with especially if you have high community transmission again or a lot of COVID-19 cases,” she said.

In response to Mierzwa-Parr’s lawsuit, Patt Garrett, Reynold's spokesperson, said in an August statement that the governor "supports parental choice over mandates" and that schools have been open safely since the previous year, the Associated Press reported.

For Dr. Luther-King Fasehun, a physician and Ph.D. student in epidemiology at Temple University’s College of Public Health, mask-optional policies are unfair, especially to kids who can’t get vaccines or who are immunocompromised. The policies are “paving a way for disasters,” said Fasehun, who would like mask-wearing to be required in schools but recommended elsewhere.

“It is in the national interest of the United States of America that we tone down the narrative of mask-optional schools [and encourage people] to fully masks in schools,” he said. “This is not a time to go mask optional.”

Erin Abner, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health, said she thinks masks should be required through the end of this school year. With mask-optional policies implemented, the burden to mask up in schools usually falls on the immunocompromised students, which forces them to be different than other kids to protect their health, she said.

But she added that she understands removing mask mandates in some areas with the right circumstances. It’s more difficult in schools that aren’t properly ventilated and where vaccination rates are low and transmission rates are high, she said. Her major concern right now is the post-viral illnesses and long-term symptoms of COVID-19 in children.

“We're concerned about disability [potentially caused by COVID-19]. We're concerned about stroke risks for younger people, all of these things,” Abner said. “There's still a lot of unknown for us to be able to say, ‘This is exactly what we should be doing right now.’”

Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

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