With a new school year underway for millions of young people in grades K-12 around the U.S., mask mandates in classrooms have either become optional or been done away with altogether. But two majority Black school districts in Maryland and Pennsylvania are going in the opposite direction, choosing to tighten masking policies as infection rates from the highly contagious BA.5 variant continue to rise.
Maryland’s Prince George's County, the state’s second-largest school district and one of the country’s wealthiest Black counties, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s largest school district, reinstated mask policies on Friday following the latest CDC guidelines, which loosened its COVID guidance.
For some, the moves represent two school districts being overly cautious in an attempt to protect students. For others, they are a dramatic step toward health equity to combat a virus that has disproportionately affected Black communities.
“In light of the highly contagious COVID-19 BA.5 variant, Prince George’s County Public Schools will return to a mandatory mask policy in all schools and facilities until further notice,” a statement from the school district, whose year kicked off Monday, read in part. “When responding to public health threats such as COVID-19, Maryland school districts have flexibility in determining mask-wearing policies.”
For Philadelphia schools, which begin classes on Aug. 29, the mask mandate will continue for at least the first 10 days of school before it becomes optional.
“This is an extra precaution for everyone’s health and well-being since increased end-of-summer social gatherings may heighten the risk of exposure to COVID-19,” a statement from Philadelphia School District leadership said. “Masking may then become optional under specific circumstances.”
School officials from Prince George's County and Philadelphia schools did not respond to Yahoo News' request for comment, but they both noted the decisions were made in collaboration with state health department guidance.
The school districts illustrate how two different environments are handling COVID’s impact in similar ways.
Prince George's, a suburban county located 16 miles outside Washington, D.C., is home to nearly 1 million residents. Sixty-four percent are Black and 20% are Latino, and the median household income is just under $90,000, according to census data. The school district has a student enrollment of about 130,000 and a $2.3 billion annual budget, according to the district’s website.
By comparison, Philadelphia is a large metropolis that is home to about 1.5 million people. Forty-four percent of the population is Black, while 34% is white and the median income is just over $49,000. Its school district has a student enrollment of nearly 200,000 and a budget north of $4 billion between the city and state government.
On its face, the move can be seen as a prudent one. The national positivity rate for the virus hovers around 17%, which is 3% higher than it was over the previous seven-day period. And data from the CDC shows that people of color are three times as likely to get infected by COVID, while Black people with the virus are 2.5 times as likely to die from the virus than white people. It’s a trend not lost on most health experts.
“We have seen the pandemic continue and we've seen the harms continue, whether that's harms from hospitalizations to deaths, as well as 'long COVID' and things like missed work to missed school,” Julia Raifman, an assistant professor of health law, policy and management at Boston University who focuses on evidence-based research on health disparities, told Yahoo News. “All of those are characterized by a large disparity by race and ethnicity.”
Raifman, who leads the COVID-19 U.S. State Policy Database, notes that Black Americans have about one-eighth the wealth of white Americans, and that means there is much less of a safety net for people to fall back on. That’s why she says mask mandates are critical for schools.
“Mask mandates are free, effective, evidence-based and start working immediately to reduce transmission the day they are implemented,” Raifman said. “Over time, their impact grows because each case that is averted averts the spread to several other people.”
For doctors who work with children, masking is just another way to be prepared for a new, possibly more contagious variant.
“I strongly believe in masking,” Dr. Gabrielle Virgo, a Silver Spring, Md., pediatrician, told the Washington Post. “We have to be realistic. We will see another new variant. This won’t be the end of it. We’re not at the point where it’s acceptable for everybody to be taking off their masks. I tell parents: Be prepared.”
Recent polling shows most Americans support mask mandates in the midst of a COVID surge. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll from April, 64% of U.S. adults said cities and states should impose mask mandates for indoor public places if there is a COVID surge in their area.
Many health advocates see the mask mandate decision by the Prince George's County and Philadelphia school districts as something even bigger — a substantial move to use their “influence to promote health equity and access for all.”
What’s paramount, according to Dr. Theresa Chapple, a Black epidemiologist, is to center the concerns of the most vulnerable.
“Think about others, center equity, stubbornly push back on policies that aren't steeped in equity,” Chapple tweeted Friday. “Let your social justice values shine through.”
When Philadelphia was on the precipice of becoming the first major city to reintroduce a mask mandate citywide earlier this year, Cheryl Bettigole, the city’s health commissioner, noted that health equity needed to be baked into the policy.
“We’ve all seen here in Philadelphia, how much our history of redlining, history of disparities has impacted, particularly our Black and brown communities in the city,” Bettigole told the New York Times in April. “And so it does make sense to be more careful in Philadelphia, than, you know, perhaps in an affluent suburb.”
Less than a week after reinstating the mask mandate across the city, however, it was rescinded after fierce public backlash and a lawsuit challenging the legality of the policy.
Other school leaders have taken the most recent, relaxed CDC guidance as gospel, choosing to go without masks in an attempt to return to prepandemic normals.
"If the CDC is going to say we should go back to school relatively normally, with minimal restrictions, then count me in," Michael Cornell, superintendent of Hamburg Central School District in Western New York, told CBS News. "We have to focus on making sure our kids experience joy, value and connections in school, because those things were all taken away from them for two and a half years."
A year ago, three in four schools nationwide had mask mandates to kick off the school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but by June of this year that number had plummeted to just 15%.
Dennis Roche, president of Burbio, a data service platform that has been tracking mask mandates since 2021, said the consensus on COVID in schools has “flipped.”
“It was very much a default to [mandate masks] in most of the country through about the winter, and now it’s the opposite,” Roche told Chalkbeat, a nonprofit outlet that focuses on education.
Raifman believes it’s ultimately up to elected leaders to take charge of keeping schools safe, even when schools feel their own hands are tied.
“There's a need for strong principled leadership to set a high bar on protecting education and inclusion and equity,” she said. “The pandemic is here to stay, and that means that we should continue using the most effective mitigation measures in a smart way so that we find some balance.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images