By a slight margin, most of the U.S. continues to require mask-wearing in public and indoor spaces. However, with more people receiving COVID-19 vaccines, that number could continue to drop throughout the summer and into the new school year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Tuesday that fully vaccinated people who have waited two weeks after their final COVID-19 vaccine shot can gather outdoors without wearing a mask, except in certain crowded settings and venues.
For those 24 states that have already relaxed their mask mandates, school districts are also reconsidering the requirements. One of those states is Montana. A mask mandate that was in place there since July was lifted by Gov. Greg Gianforte on Feb. 12. Gianforte said the decision was made because he thinks enough vulnerable Montana residents have been vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.
While the number of cases spiked in November, an average of 1,200 daily, positive rates have since been on the decline. Montana now reports a seven-day average of 130 cases. Keith Haggerty, the maintenance and transportation director for Troy Public Schools, located near the northwest corner of the state, shared that his district made the decision to lift its mask mandate on April 5.
Haggerty noted that Troy Public Schools hadn’t recorded a positive case for the past three months. He added that seating charts are kept for both classrooms and school buses which have improved contact tracing efforts.
“This kept our quarantined numbers low, and we never had to close the schools,” Haggerty told School Transportation News. “We participated in all of our sports without any real issues. It has been a very positive school year for Troy Public Schools.”
Haggerty added that parents and community members responded with overwhelming support of the district’s decision to lift the mask mandate.
Meanwhile, Arkansas, which is now averaging 63 new cases a day compared to over 3,300 in January, has also ended the mask mandate. Gov. Asa Hutchinson lifted the requirement on March 30. Hutchinson said during a press conference that the state has fallen below the testing threshold.
Springdale Public Schools, located near Arkansas’ border with Oklahoma and Missouri, will continue to require masks be worn in buildings and school buses through the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year.
However, the school board voted unanimously to modify the face-coverings policy, effective on May 28, the day after the current school year ends. “Face coverings will continue to be required indoors and on school buses, but social distancing will not be expected,” Superintendent Jared Cleveland stated. “Face coverings will be optional while outdoors or during physical activities.”
Trisha Labit, the school bus safety coordinator for the district, said summer school ridership numbers will be low but social distancing and bus sanitization after each run will continue, though the practices are no longer required.
“Our district did provide us with the vaccine also and the majority of the employees took the opportunity to take that,” Labit said. “We did lose about 17 high-risk drivers when this all started, and they have yet to return at this time. Surprisingly enough, we have also hired enough drivers to cover our routes when all [students] attend.”
She added that mechanics and office staff fill in as drivers when needed. Labit said Springdale is hoping the high-risk drivers will return, or at the very least new drivers will be hired this summer to help with the expected rise in ridership next year.
Despite Indiana reducing the public mask mandate to a mask advisory, the mandate remains in place for schools. Rene Sanchez, the assistant superintendent of operations for South Bend Community Schools Corporation, said that students and district staff must continue to wear masks in all school buildings and classrooms, at indoor school events, and on school buses.
He added that if there are multiple individuals present in school offices, masks are also required. “Our expectation in South Bend is that employees, students, and visitors continue to wear a mask in our schools and in our [buildings],” Sanchez said.
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Gov. Eric Holcomb dismissed the statewide mask mandate on April 6, however positive COVID-19 cases are back on the rise. As of this week, Indiana has a seven-day average of 956 new cases. The Indiana State Department of Health told WFPL News that the uptick in cases is not directly attributed to the relaxation of restrictions.
“Case counts have fluctuated throughout the pandemic,” ISDH spokesperson Megan Wade-Taxter told WFPL News. “Although social distancing and the wearing of face masks are no longer required, they are still recommended. We continue to urge individuals to practice preventive measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19.”
Sanchez added that South Bend continues to navigate the effects of the pandemic. “Educating students has always been our purpose, but educating is so much more than just the presentation of a lesson,” Sanchez said. “We have to be sure that students are ready to learn, and the educators are ready to perform their respective roles for the students to learn. The pandemic has spared no one.”
He concluded that South Bend is providing even more digital, socioemotional and nutritional resources for students. District officials are also working to ensure safe and secure buildings and school buses for the educators, making accommodations when needed.