Enforcing Mask Mandates in Schools Becomes Sticking Point as Students Return to Campus While Pandemic Rages

North Paulding High School in Georgia (@Freeyourmindkid / Twitter)

The national spat over face masks — which have become a symbol of divisive partisanship in the pandemic era — has officially reached the schoolhouse gate. As some students return to in-person learning after months of campus closures, a viral photograph has turned a Georgia high school into the latest culture war battlefield.

The photo, which shows a crowded hallway and many students without face coverings, prompted outrage on social media, and several students say they were suspended. But the students told Buzzfeed News they got in trouble for using their cell phones to post pictures of the crammed campus on social media, not for refusing to wear a mask.

The incident highlights a difficult question that school administrators face as students return to school amid a slew of new health recommendations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages students and teachers to wear masks at school, and many states require them — but should schools discipline students who fail to follow public health mandates?

“There is no question that the photo does not look good,” Brian Otott, the superintendent of Georgia’s Paulding County School District, said in a letter. Although the district encourages students to wear masks on campus, it isn’t a requirement. “Wearing a mask is a personal choice, and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them.”

The photos — and Otott’s refusal to enforce a mask policy — were met with derision by some on social media. Several Twitter users ridiculed the district for its stance on face masks while enforcing a dress code policy whereby students, and girls in particular, can be punished for wearing shirts without sleeves.

But Caroline Durham, the legal and policy director of the social justice group Georgia Appleseed, pushed back on instincts to punish children who refuse to wear masks. Students are more likely to fall behind if they’re excluded from school, she said, and suspending students is “one of the first steps of a child going down what they call the school-to-prison pipeline.”

“The question is, how do we deal with children who can’t weigh the risk of COVID [or] may not understand the significance of wearing masks?” she said. Rather than focusing energy on discipline, she said, schools should spend their time teaching students about the importance of safety precautions, especially at a time when the face mask debate is so fraught among adults. “If you suspend a child, if you expel a child for behavior they perhaps don’t fully understand, you’re impacting the education that they’re going to get at a time where things are already challenging.”

The issue is also unfolding outside Georgia as cities resume in-person instruction. In New York City, Chancellor Richard Carranza recently announced plans to send students home if they refuse to wear masks in class once in-person learning begins in September. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday that New York schools could reopen for in-person learning in the fall.

“If you don’t cooperate, you have now elected for remote learning 100 percent until you are willing to follow the safety protocols,” Carranza said, according to Chalkbeat. Students who are sent home won’t be suspended and will be able to participate in remote learning, a district spokesperson told the news outlet, but it remains unclear how officials plan to confront children who refuse to leave. A Department of Education spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In several Iowa cities, including Des Moines, education leaders have imposed their own rules on masks. But Iowa’s education department has declined to instate similar rules statewide because enforcing them could be difficult. In South Carolina, state officials issued a mask mandate for students but declined to impose disciplinary measures for students who don’t comply.

“We’re not putting it in the student conduct, disciplinary matrix,” a South Carolina Department of Education spokesman told The Greenville News. “We don’t want to see it be used to get law enforcement involved or anything of that nature. We’re really counting on people to take this on as a personal responsibility.”

After a summer in which school districts nationwide have reconsidered placing police in schools, officers said they don’t want to enforce mask mandates either. Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said during the group’s national conference last week that enforcing mask rules lands outside the scope of officers’ duty.

“I believe this falls into the arena of the school administration to handle and that [school-based police] should be the responsible adults setting the good example,” he said during the virtual event. “I hope that’s the way that we’re all approaching it. That’s where we preach the issue of ‘don’t get involved in school discipline.’”

Police officers outside the school setting are also reluctant to enforce mask rules, according to a recent survey by Lexipol, a company that sells police policy manuals. Just 3 percent of officers who responded to the survey said they should issue fines to people who refuse to wear masks in public.

Cities have also had to grapple with how to enforce mask mandates. In Denver, for example, officials imposed steep fines for residents who refuse to follow public health guidelines. Children over the age of 3 are required to wear face masks in public spaces, and people who refuse could be fined up to $999 or jailed for up to 300 days.

However, the city has focused primarily on education about the importance of wearing face masks during the pandemic, and officials have said enforcement will be reserved for “truly egregious situations.”

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