The author is pictured wearing a black shirt against a green background.
Tracy Waller, Esq., MPH, is an attorney with the Maryland Center for Developmental Disabilities (MCDD) at Kennedy Krieger Institute as part of the MCDD’s grant to develop a Center for Dignity in Healthcare for People with Disabilities (CDHPD).

While many schools only offered a virtual option for students last year, this year, most students across the country are attending school in person. In the nearly two years since COVID-19 emerged in the United States, many Americans have worn face masks and have been vaccinated to prevent catching the coronavirus. Although there has been progress, the number of COVID-19 cases has remained high.

Unfortunately, the vaccine for COVID-19 to prevent death and serious illness is still not available to children under the age of 12 years.[1] According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, as of October 7, 2021, more than 6 million children have tested positive for the coronavirus since the onset of the pandemic. From September 30, 2021, to October 7, 2021, 148,222 children tested positive for virus, representing 24.8% of the weekly reported COVID-19 cases.

The Importance of School and the Protection of Masks

Although the number of both pediatric and adult COVID-19 cases remain high, keeping children in school, in person, continues to be a priority. Children from lower-income families and under-resourced communities were especially vulnerable to the toll of being kept out of school. Children with disabilities were disproportionately affected because they lacked access to much-needed special education and related services, supplementary aides and programmatic supports, which are required to support their academic progress, but which were not accessible or not as efficient virtually.

According to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations, anyone not fully vaccinated and at least 2 years old should wear a mask in indoor public places. For people who are fully vaccinated, a mask is still suggested indoors in areas of substantial or high transmission “to maximize protection from the Delta variant and prevent possibly spreading it to others.” Although some children and adults are unable to wear masks because of their disability, studies have shown that by increasing the number of people wearing masks, the rate of transmission of the coronavirus is decreased. Therefore, masks, especially surgical masks[2], also protect the wearer by reducing the potential exposure of the person wearing the mask.

Creating School Mask Mandates and Bans on School Mask Mandates

The topic of masking continues to be politically divided, so states across the country are varied in their school mask policies.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) require that masks be worn in schools regardless of vaccine status.

  • California, Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington.

Four U.S. territories require masks in schools:

  • Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
    • In Guam, Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) schools are offering in-person instruction, while the remainder of the island’s K-12 schools are offering remote classes.

Five states have attempted to ban school mask mandates statewide, but have been blocked by the courts:

  • Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

And five states have banned school districts from mandating masks:

  • Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah

The remaining states have left the decision to require universal masking in schools up to individual school districts:

  • Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
    • In Montana, the Department of Public Health and Human Services issued a rule that directs that schools mandating masks in the classroom “should … be able to demonstrate they considered parental concerns in adopting the mandate” and that they should allow students to opt out based on “physical, mental, emotional or psychosocial health concerns, as well as on the basis of religious belief, moral conviction or other fundamental right.” But many Montana school districts have continued to require masks in schools.

The topic of masking in schools continues to be politically divisive and can become a political sword in states that are politically divided. Because requirements to wear a mask or to allow students to opt out of wearing a mask in school are new and cannot be compared to other school mandates or rules, states have relied on different mechanisms to either ban or require mask-wearing in school—and courts have been split on upholding school mask bans and mandates.

A comprehensive list of state-by-state school mask mandates, bans and ongoing litigation can be found on the Center for Dignity in Healthcare for People with Disabilities’ website.

Looking Ahead

The country continues to be divided around school mask mandates, despite studies proving that larger COVID-19 outbreaks occur in schools that do not require universal masking. As the winter months approach, it remains to be seen whether states without mask mandates will reconsider their stance if COVID-19 numbers start to climb again, as students spend more time indoors.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to be an evolving event. Experts are still studying and learning about COVID-19. For the most up-to-date information, please check the CDC website:

[1] On Thursday, October 7, 2021, Pfizer submitted data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requesting emergency use authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. The FDA has tentatively scheduled a meeting on October 26, 2021, to review the request, and an FDA ruling is expected as early as October 31.

[2] In this study conducted in Bangladesh, the researchers found that the filtration of surgical masks worked better than cloth masks, but “the best mask is one that a person will actually wear and wear correctly.”