In order to limit the spread of COVID-19 while allowing students to return to in-person learning, many states enacted mask mandates in public schools. However, on Monday, Oregon became the latest state to eliminate such mandates, joining a multitude of other states. Oregon health officials announced that mask requirements for indoor spaces will end by March 31st, and Governor Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey made the same announcement with a similar timeline just a day before. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, also a Democrat, rescinded public schools’ state mask mandate last month, and the Democratic governors of Connecticut and New York have stated they are “re-evaluating” whether or not they will reinstate their own soon-to-expire mask mandates. Nearly two years into the pandemic, many experts are arguing that it is time to return “back to normal”, especially in public schools where the emotional toll of COVID-19 on students has been great. Is it better to enact stringent measures to completely wipe out COVID-19, or accept that people will still suffer under loosened restrictions if their suffering is less with access to vaccines?
The justification for ending indoor mask mandates stems from several beliefs held by health officials. First, there is a predicted drop in serious illness, hospitalizations, and deaths among COVID-19 victims due to the high vaccination rates, especially in federal positions that mandate vaccinations for employees. Oregon health officials specifically cited this projected drop in COVID-19-related hospitalizations, stating that 400 or fewer Oregonians would be hospitalized with COVID-19 by the selected date of March 31st. Additionally, COVID-19 cases are finally beginning to drop after the Omicron surge in the United States. For instance, in Oregon, the average number of new COVID-19 cases decreased by 40% in the week prior to the announcement. Government officials of the states, all Democrats, have been careful to qualify the mandated removal by emphasizing the role of “local leaders” to enforce their own mandates and also reserve the right to appropriately reinstate any mandates if COVID-19 spikes reoccur. On the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, multiple states led by Republican majorities have banned mask mandates altogether. Recently, the Department of Education announced a civil rights investigation into whether such states, including Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah, are discriminating against disabled students by banning mask requirements. Bryan Symmes, the communications director for South Carolina, stated that the probe is just an attempt “to force a radical liberal agenda on states and people who disagree with them,” arguing that “the governor isn’t going to ignore a parent’s fundamental right to make health decisions for their children.”
Another reason for ending mask mandates is not because of physical health, but mental health, especially in public schools. Several scientific studies have proven the effectiveness of masks in reducing transmission of COVID-19, including among children two years and older, but health experts have begun to argue that the emotional toll on children overshadows the physical benefit of prevention. The inability to see the faces of peers and teachers has not only impacted the development of crucial social skills for children but has especially harmed the ability of non-native English speakers to learn the language. On a more serious note, a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that adolescents sent to the emergency room for suspected suicide attempts increased by 31% compared to 2019, and last October several pediatric health organizations declared the pandemic’s impact on mental health among children and adolescents to be a national emergency. For example, Dr. Lucy McBride stressed that the “protect-against-COVID-at-all-costs attitude” that has been the norm (at least in blue states) is not only no longer relevant due to the availability of vaccines, but is hurting more than helping.