Last week, the country reached a pandemic milestone: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that vaccinated people generally no longer have to wear masks indoors. While many Americans rejoiced at the prospect of maskless trips to the grocery store and the post office, some parents were worried. With just a few weeks remaining in the school year, would school districts lift mask mandates for vaccinated students and teachers until summer vacation begins? So intense was the confusion that on Saturday, the CDC issued a clarification that strongly recommended school districts keep mandates in place. That’s largely because a sizable portion of American children aren’t fully protected from catching and spreading COVID-19. Elementary school students aren’t even yet eligible to be vaccinated. Although the FDA approved the Pfizer shot for 12- to 15-year-olds a few weeks ago, those children have only had time to receive their first dose.
But the CDC’s guidance for schools didn’t stop some districts from getting rid of their mask mandates anyway. In Wisconsin, according to WTMJ-TV Milwaukee, some 50 districts have said that vaccinated people in schools no longer need to wear masks. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said Friday that districts would be allowed to do away with mask requirements for vaccinated people. “You can show your faces these last few weeks of school,” he said.
Another district following suit is Cobb County, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. Last Thursday, just hours after the CDC made its initial statement on vaccinated people no longer needing to wear masks, Cobb County superintendent Chris Ragsdale issued an announcement: “In accordance with the new guidance, Cobb Schools will no longer require fully vaccinated individuals to wear a mask,” he wrote. The district doesn’t plan to verify vaccination status—the new rules will work on an honor system.
When Cobb County posted the announcement on its Facebook page, comments flooded in. Some parents said they worried that the new policy could leave unvaccinated and immunocompromised people vulnerable to infection, and they worried that students and teachers would simply lie about their vaccination status. “What about unvaccinated teachers?” one commenter wrote. “How is the district going to ensure my child is safe and their teacher is truthful?”
Others cheered the decision. “Thank you for putting this decision back with families,” someone wrote. “Masks should have never been mandatory. Each family should have the choice to make the right decision for their children.” Someone else added: “Open it all up!!! Stop living in fear! My 10 year old is done with this crap.” The discussion quickly became political. “Leftists don’t care about actual children,” another commenter wrote, “unless they can be used to virtue signal.”
Cobb County Schools didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor did the three school board members I contacted. But I spoke to several parents who said they had concerns about their children’s safety.
Louise Palmer, a Cobb County parent of children in third and sixth grades, told me she thought the decision was rash. “It wasn’t a huge surprise that [the superintendent] decided to go ahead and do this, but it was very disappointing,” she said. “And it puts our children at risk.” Palmer told me she was particularly worried about the fact that the school district didn’t plan to verify anyone’s vaccination status. “Masks have been really successful in our school districts,” she said, “so for [the superintendent] to, on a snap decision, just pull them away when we’ve got one and a half weeks of school left without any accountability mechanism in place” made her nervous.
Indeed, some commenters on the Cobb County Schools Facebook page suggested that they planned to send their unvaccinated children to school maskless. “If the people who have had the vaccine are safe then my child not having it or wearing a mask should not be a problem,” one said. Another added: “I will not be vaccinating my children and they will not be wearing masks—period. And they’ll still grow up to be amazing humans with amazing immune systems. Now go have a blessed day.”
Stacy Efrat, whose three children attend elementary and middle school in Cobb County, expressed frustration over the decision. She said that her family had been very careful about masking, and that she worried the district’s decision could undo her hard work. “If we’re not checking to see who’s vaccinated and who’s not, you’re going to have people just saying, ‘Well, no one’s going to find out that I’m not vaccinated,’” she said.
The school year ends on May 26 in Cobb County, so it won’t be possible for parents to see the long-term effects of the mask decision. But this summer, districts across the country will wrestle with mask rules for the next school year: By then, many middle- and high school students will have been fully vaccinated, while elementary students likely won’t be eligible until fall at the earliest.
Both Palmer and Efrat said they were worried about what their district would decide to do in the coming school year—especially because the superintendent indicated in his statement that he planned to make masks optional for both vaccinated and unvaccinated students and teachers. “As our cases are continuing to trend down and vaccinations are trending up, we fully expect to start the 2021-2022 school year with masks as optional,” Ragsdale wrote. “We are looking forward to returning our entire focus to teaching and learning as soon as possible, as One Team.”
Efrat said she was alarmed to read about that plan. “We don’t have leadership that believes in following the science,” she said. “There is no enforcement, and there’s going to be people taking advantage, and that’s putting our children at risk.”