- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2020

A number of school districts in conservative regions are requiring masks if schools reopen this fall — sometimes against the guidance of political leaders.

For example, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has mandated that students return to schools, encouraging but not requiring masks to halt the spread of the coronavirus. But in the northwestern corner of the red state, the Sioux Center public school district has ordered that masks be worn.

“The district will also be requiring masks to be worn by all 5th-12th students and all adults (staff, parents, visitors) while in school buildings when there are large gatherings and when social distancing practices cannot be followed,” schools Superintendent Gary McEldowney wrote in a letter to parents last week.

In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the state’s largest school district has required masks for students, despite Gov. Kristi Noem citing a study by a Toronto children’s hospital calling mask use by children “impractical.” School officials changed the language of the reopening plan from “strongly recommended” to expected this week, after having drawn criticism for a lax standard earlier this month.

“Our expectation will be adults and students will be wearing masks,” Sioux Falls Superintendent Jane Stavem said Monday at a school board meeting. “Now it gets down to what does this look like in our school days, in our halls.”

In Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts is mulling a lawsuit against the mayor of the state’s capital, Lincoln, for a mask mandate in public places, but several of the state’s larger school districts aren’t shying away from requiring masks.

“This is not a change we take lightly or a decision made quickly,” Kearney Public Schools Superintendent Kent Edwards wrote in a letter to parents, including medical exemptions from the mask mandate but noting that local health officials support the school system’s plan.

As schools plan to reopen during the pandemic, masks have become a political issue, pitting those who say they are unnecessary and violate individual liberty against others who argue that they can help slow a public health crisis. Health experts have noted that the risk of coronavirus infection for children in general is low but could be a cause for concern among teachers and staff, who are more vulnerable to serious illness.

Amid the debate over masks, one of the nation’s largest teachers unions is authorizing its members to strike if their schools plan to reopen without proper safety measures, The Associated Press reported.

The American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 million school employees, issued a resolution on Tuesday saying it will support any local chapter that decides to strike over reopening plans.

In providing its blessing, the union also is offering local chapters access to its financial and legal resources as they navigate a return to the classroom. Union officials said they will provide legal support, communications support and staffing to local chapters that vote to strike, the AP reported.

Some school districts have balked, suggesting that children are demoralized or distracted by masks. Others say that masks hamper communication by facial expressions between teachers and students.

But for many schools, the use of facial coverings for middle and high school students has evaded politics, as superintendents and school boards in some conservative corners of the nation set expectations for learning during the pandemic.

In Wyoming, which has seen fewer than 30 deaths due to COVID-19, officials this week announced they were sending 500,000 masks to the 48 public school districts across the state (serving 90,000 students). Mask use isn’t mandated but encouraged by the state’s top health officer.

In Texas, masks will be required apparel for children 10 years old and older when schools reopen this fall. And in Indiana, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb is requiring masks statewide, including in schools.

“Hoosiers have worked hard to get where we are today with businesses open & people back at work,” Mr. Holcomb tweeted Monday. “We want to keep it that way. We don’t want to dial things back. Face coverings can & will help us blunt the increase of this virus.”

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