The 2021-22 school year started with several pandemic-related challenges that school leaders must face and on which they must make critical decisions. Salient among them are whether to require vaccines for K-12 staff and face masks for everyone in school. On Aug. 27, 2021, a Florida judge ruled that public school districts can legally impose universal mask mandates to slow the spread of COVID-19. This court decision reinstates the roles and responsibilities of local school boards.
Timely and accurate information about the pandemic is essential for school leaders to set sound policies. According to Johns Hopkins medical research, an effective vaccine will protect someone who receives it by lowering the chance of getting COVID-19 if the person encounters the coronavirus, and widespread vaccination means the coronavirus will not infect as many people or will limit spread through communities. In a recent study, after examining new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations among adults by vaccination status in New York between May 3 and July 25, 2021, researchers state that their findings support the implementation of a multicomponent approach to control the pandemic, centered on vaccination, as well as other prevention strategies such as wearing masks and keeping physical distance from each other. UC Davis researchers suggest that wearing facial masks may reduce the risk of getting COVID-19 by 65%.
To provide school leaders with a national picture at this challenging time, the Center for Public Education (CPE) of the National School Boards Association (NSBA) studied multiple data sources in health and education at federal, state, and local levels. We focused on data about vaccines, face masks, and instructional models in the 2021-22 school year, and answered some basic questions, such as:
- What is the COVID-19 vaccination rate in each state? Do states require COVID-19 vaccination for students and/or school staff?
- What is the mask-wearing policy in each state? How many of the 120 largest school districts require face masks in school? In a different set of 120 randomly sampled small rural school districts, how many require face masks in school?
- What are some of the policies that states or local school districts are implementing in terms of instructional models (e.g., in-person, remote, or hybrid) in the 2021-22 school year?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses a system — COVID Data Tracker — to inform the public about the COVID-19 pandemic in each state. By Aug. 20, 2021, in 41 states and the District of Columbia, more than half of the population have received at least one dose of vaccines (Figure 1). In Vermont, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Connecticut, Maine, and Rhode Island, more than 70% of the state population have received at least one dose of vaccines. By contrast, in Idaho, Wyoming, and Mississippi, the population vaccination rate was relatively low with less than 45% having received at least one dose of vaccines.
Figure 1. Vaccination Rate by State
Source: COVID-19 State Profile Report - Combined Set | HealthData.gov
Regarding vaccination policies, all states, the District of Columbia, and territories have vaccination requirements for children attending childcare facilities and schools for vaccinations other than the COVID-19 vaccine. Although students 12 or older are eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, states do not require students to have COVID-19 vaccination. So far, we found the following states have clearly stated that they required or would require COVID-19 vaccination for K-12 staff:
- California would become the first state in the nation to require all teachers and staff in K-12 public and private schools to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, Governor Gavin Newsom announced on Aug. 11, 2021.
- Washington state issued a vaccine mandate for all K-12 staff on Aug. 18, 2021.
- In Illinois, all pre-k-12 teachers and staff will now be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the state government on Aug. 26, 2021.
- In Connecticut, state workers like teachers and early childhood staff will be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 27 or provide weekly negative COVID-19 tests.
- In Oregon, “All teachers, educators, support staff, and volunteers in K-12 schools will be required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or six weeks after full FDA approval, whichever is later.”
- All New Jersey school and state employees must be fully vaccinated by October.
We also found some school districts that have announced that school employees must be fully vaccinated. For example:
- Fairfax County Public Schools (VA) announced that “By late October, all FCPS employees will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to routine negative COVID-19 tests, a move that reinforces existing layered prevention strategies and the division’s commitment to safety.”
- The St. Louis School Board (MO) passed a vaccine mandate unanimously at its meeting on Aug. 24, 2021. Staff members must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15 or apply for a medical or religious exemption. Those with approved exemptions will be tested for COVID-19 twice a week.
In brief, the CDC advises that COVID-19 vaccination is a leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. To make policies that help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports, school leaders may need to examine and consider the vaccination data in their school districts as well as of the local communities they serve.
In its Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools (8/5/2021), the CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status, due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta variant. To provide a national picture about state policies in this regard, we compared multiple data sources and verified the information from each state government website. As shown in Figure 2, half of the country (25 states) leaves the decision on mask mandates to local education leaders.
Figure 2. Policies about Face Masks by State (Data by 8/27/2021)
Source: School mask tracker: Who is and isn't loosening the rules (districtadministration.com); State-by-state guide to school face mask mandates - TODAY; Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights Opens Investigations in Five States Regarding Prohibitions of Universal Indoor Masking | U.S. Department of Education
- Among those 25 states, some state governments emphasized the local authority of setting mask-related policies. For example:
- West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch said mask requirements will be up to each individual county in West Virginia in updated school opening guidelines for fall 2021.
- Governor Tom Wolf said on Aug. 6, “I think the school districts in Pennsylvania have to decide what they want to do.” However, on Aug. 31, he said that his administration was mandating masks in K-12 schools and child care centers because it's a necessary step to "keep our children in the classroom and COVID-19 out of that classroom."
- In Missouri, the state's updated guidelines recommend that “policies regarding masks should be made at the discretion of the local boards of education.”
- In 16 states and the District of Columbia, state governments require students and school staff to wear masks:
- Nevada implemented universal mask mandates for the state’s two largest districts — Clark County School District and Washoe County School District — and all students statewide must wear masks on school buses.
- In New Mexico, masks are required for all staff and students in elementary schools, and for unvaccinated staff and students in secondary schools.
- In nine states, there are laws or regulations that prohibit school districts from requiring face masks in school. According to the U.S. Department of Education (8/30/2021):
- Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah have “state mask restrictions on schools and school districts.”
- In Florida, Texas, Arkansas, and Arizona, “the states' bans on universal indoor masking are not currently being enforced because of court orders or other state actions.”
We also examined the face mask policies in the 120 largest school districts that educate nearly 13.7 million students ages 5-17, approximately 2.6 million of whom live in poverty. We found that during the fall of the 2021-22 school year, about 77% of the districts have mask mandate policies, 19% of the districts recommend students to wear face coverings, and 4% of the districts only require face masks on school buses.
Table 1 shows that in states that ban mask mandates, many school districts still chose to require facial coverings when students returned to school. For instance, 12 of the 17 largest school districts in Florida, 17 of the 26 largest districts in Texas, 3 of the 5 largest districts in Tennessee, and 2 of the 3 largest districts in South Carolina have face mask requirements for the new school year.
Table 1. Counts of Large School Districts, by the Policies about Face Masks (N= 120 Largest School Districts)
Source: Data collected by the NSBA’s CPE between Aug. 25 to Aug. 31, 2021.
Additionally, we investigated policies on face masks in small rural school districts. Using an Excel function, we randomly selected 120 districts out of the 3,752 regular local school districts that are eligible for the Small, Rural School Achievement (SRSA) program. In SRSA school districts, “the total number of students in average daily attendance at all of the schools served by the local education agency (LEA) is fewer than 600; or each county in which a school served by the LEA is located has a total population density of fewer than 10 persons per square mile.”
Table 2 shows that among the 120 small rural districts randomly selected, about 30% require facial coverings for both school staff and students, about 58% have no such requirement, and about 12% require students to wear face masks on school buses. Most of the districts that require face masks are in states that have state mask mandates, such as California, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey. It should be noted that at least half of the districts that make face masks optional use social media (e.g., school website, Facebook) to clearly advise students and staff to follow the CDC guidance and wear facial coverings during in-person learning at school, or have specific instructions about where and how staff and students should use face masks, or plan to require face masks depending on the number of COVID-19 cases in their school districts.
Table 2. Counts of Small, Rural School Districts, by the Policies about Face Masks (N=120 SRSA School Districts)
Source: Data collected by the NSBA’s CPE between Sept. 1 and Sept. 4, 2021
In summary, the random sample of small rural school districts we used may not be nationally representative, but the data show a different pattern of policies on face masks between large school districts and small rural districts. In states without mask mandates, most large school districts require face masks for the new school year, while the majority of small rural districts make facial coverings optional.
The New School Year
All states have planned to start or have started the 2021-22 school year with in-person learning. Most states provided guidance and resources for districts to safely return to in-person learning. Some states clarified and specified how school districts use blended or hybrid instructional models in the new school year.
Recently, at least seven state governments reinforced their statewide regulations in terms of requirements for districts and schools to provide in-person instruction:
- Maryland ― The Maryland State Board of Education unanimously voted that Maryland school systems offer full in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year.
- Massachusetts ― For fall 2021, all districts and schools will be required to operate classroom learning in-person, full-time, five days a week.
- New Jersey ― Local Education Agencies (LEA) must plan to provide full-day, full-time, in-person instruction and operations for the 2021-22 school year.
- Oregon ― For the 2021-22 school year, schools must plan to provide full-time, in-person education for all students every school day.
- South Carolina ― South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster signed a bill into law that requires all school districts in the state to offer five days of in-person learning every week starting April 26, 2021.
- Utah ― For the 2021-22 school year, except for an online-only charter school, LEAs are required to provide at least 4 days of in-person instruction.
- Virginia ― State law in Virginia requires all public schools to offer in-person instruction to students during the 2021-22 school year in accordance with recommended CDC mitigation strategies, to the greatest extent practicable. The new law permits temporary school closures only necessary in the context of controlling spread associated with increased impact to school such as increased cases or outbreaks. Schools may, at their discretion, also offer virtual instruction to students throughout the year.
Most states provide guidance, toolkits, and resources to assist local school districts to ensure students to return to safe, healthy in-person learning this fall. For example:
- Alabama: Back to School Guidance 2021-2022.
- Alaska: 2021-2022 In-Person Learning Guidelines and Resources.
- Arkansas: 2021-2022 COVID-19 Guidance for Schools.
- Colorado: Toolkit and Resources for 2021 School Guidance.
- Idaho: 2021-2022 Back to School Guidance.
- Kansas: Updated Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools.
At the same time, some states have specified when and how to offer remote, distance, blended, hybrid, or online learning in the 2021-22 school year. For instance:
- According to the Illinois State Board of Education, districts must provide remote instruction to any student who is under quarantine or excluded from school consistent with guidance or requirements from a local health department or the Illinois Department of Public Health, including students who are not in-person due to the district entering into an adaptive pause after consultation with the local health department.
- The Kentucky Department of Education developed a “Guidance for Offering a Hybrid Performance-Based Schedule.” According to the guidance, a school may offer a hybrid schedule to grades 5-12 by utilizing their board’s policy on performance-based courses. Performance-based courses can be virtual or in person. It is possible for a student in all performance-based courses to attend school on a hybrid schedule.
- The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) has created a provisional, expedited approval process for online and blended learning options for the 2021-22 school year. The four options are:
- Blended learning where students learn primarily in the building but receive instruction online for up to 20% of their weekly schedule. There is no requirement to notify MDE if providing this option.
- Blended learning where students learn primarily in the building but receive instruction online for 21-50% of their weekly schedule. Districts and charter schools must notify and submit program information to MDE for this option.
- Blended learning where students receive instruction online for more than 50% of their weekly schedule. Districts and charter schools must apply for provisional approval as an online learning provider.
- Online learning where students learn fully online away from a school building for one or more courses. Districts and charter schools must apply for provisional approval as an online learning provider.
- The Ohio Department of Education points out that an online learning school uses an instructional model different from the Remote Learning Plan that was authorized during the 2020-21 school year. Therefore, beginning with the new school year, if districts want to operate online learning programs, they need to develop a separate school with its own Internal Retrieval Number (IRN) and all students engaged in online learning must be enrolled in that school. The state requires an online school to provide students with a free computer and internet access and use a learning management system to track student participation in online learning activities. Online schools also need to track student off-line learning opportunities and have those opportunities checked and approved by teachers.
Due to a sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 cases and/or COVID-related absences among students and school staff, some school districts decided on temporary school closure. For example:
- Baird Independent School District (TX), with an enrollment of 279 students, announced that all Baird ISD campuses would be closed beginning on Wednesday, Sept. 1, and classes would resume on Thursday, Sept. 9
- Amherst County Public Schools (VA), with an enrollment of 4,115 students, announced that the district would be closed beginning Friday, Sept. 3 through Friday, Sept. 10, and would provide optional learning materials for students during the temporary closure.
- Sumner County Schools (TN), with an enrollment of 30,425 students, announced that it would utilize inclement weather days to help mitigate the community spread of COVID-19 among students and staff from Sept. 7 to Sept. 10; there would be no instruction via Google Classroom during that period; and all Sumner County Schools would resume normal operations on Sept. 13.
“In general, it's the school board's job to make policy” (Michigan Association of School Boards). Setting COVID-related policies in a school district is a major responsibility of a school board. “Because they serve the community, board members must work with the public as they establish the mission and direction of education” (Oregon School Boards Association). “In almost all cases, the action taken by school boards is done by way of formal voting at public meetings” (New Jersey School Boards Association).
Local news media often report on results of school board meetings. For example:
- The Central Bucks School Board voted down, on a 5-4 vote, a mask requirement and tighter COVID-19 mitigation measures. (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 8/25/2021)
- The Williamson County Schools board approved an expansion of its current mask mandate to middle and high school students. The expansion was approved with an 8-4 vote at a specially called board meeting. (Nashville Tennessean, 8/26/2021)
- St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) could become first school district in Minnesota to require coronavirus vaccines for employees. A public notice for the coming board meeting says, “the board and administration will review and discuss a resolution regarding a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for all SPPS staff.” Three of the seven board members had expressed an interest in such a requirement before the board unanimously approved a face mask mandate. (Twin Cities Pioneer Press, 8/26/2021)
Promoting vaccination and universal indoor masking are considered critical components of layered prevention strategies. The goal of these strategies is to have students return to full-time in-person learning in the fall. As described by the U.S. Department of Education, school leaders should consider three main goals to ensure all students are set up for success in the 2021-22 school year, namely: prioritizing the health and safety of students, staff, and educators; building school communities and supporting students’ social, emotional, and mental health; and accelerating students’ academic achievement.
To some extent, schools have become the center of their communities during the crisis brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic created and is still creating uncertainties, many school districts have developed a section on their website to disseminate COVID-related data and information, which aims to empower students, teachers, and parents with relevant knowledge and help them adapt to change. When the number of COVID cases increases, school leaders may need to partner with local health departments and take additional measures depending on the situation.
The data we presented in this article were gathered between late August and early September 2021, and have limitations. As the pandemic by nature creates uncertainties, states and local school districts must update their policies to meet the needs of their communities. The data we provide here should help all stakeholders to better understand the full range of issues facing a school district. Preparation, discussion, and honesty often lead to consensus, but all these are based on data.