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A Failure to Respond: Public School Mask Mandates in the 2021–22 School Year

American Enterprise Institute

August 10, 2022

Key Points

  • From September 2021 to late February 2022, school district mask mandates were in place for 61 percent of students in the US.During that period, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance advised all students and teachers to mask indoors, with no flexibility based on local conditions.On February 25, 2022, the CDC adopted new adaptive masking guidance based on local case counts and hospital capacity. Overnight, the CDC’s recommendation for student masking fell from applying to 100 percent of students to 37 percent.Applying the current CDC guidance framework to the earlier weeks of the 2021–22 school year shows that the current guidance would have recommended mask mandates for 99 percent of students during the height of the omicron surge, when actual mandates covered 55 percent of students.The “back-mapped” guidance would have recommended mask mandates for just 40 percent of students during the lull between delta and omicron from October through mid-December 2021, when actual guidance held recommendations at 100 percent.

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During the 2020–21 school year, America’s schools were forced to balance the pandemic’s threat to students, school employees, and communities with the benefits of providing in-person instruction. None had easy decisions to make. With half of all Americans fully vaccinated at the start of the 2021–22 school year, schools reopened their doors for learning with fewer interruptions than in the pandemic’s first year. The 2021–22 school year challenged schools to decide how to manage the threat of COVID-19 while providing in-person instruction, and those decisions fell sharply along political and demographic lines.

From the start of the 2021–22 school year through the last day of February 2022, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance recommended 100 percent of teachers and students mask indoors. The CDC’s current school masking guidance, announced February 25, 2022—just four days before President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address—adapts to local COVID caseloads and hospital capacity.1 The CDC could have offered adaptive recommendations across the entire school year. These recommendations would have actually guided school districts as to when masking was warranted and when it was not.

Arriving much too late, the guidance proved strikingly misaligned with schools’ masking policies for much of the school year. The CDC’s blanket recommendations for universal masking at the start of the school year set the stage for blanket compliance or defiance from states and districts.

School districts’ decisions on masking recommendations closely mirrored the 2020 election results. Most districts in counties that had voted for Biden followed universal masking, even when COVID’s threat receded. Most districts in counties that had voted for Donald Trump remained mask optional throughout the year, even during the height of the January 2020 omicron wave.

As soon as the CDC announced new adaptive masking guidance, while that omicron wave rapidly subsided, the prevalence of school district mask mandates plummeted. At the close of the second pandemic school year, there is considerable doubt about school districts’ willingness to employ mask mandates next year, even if the pandemic warrants it.

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