Around the country, states and districts that have required masks in schools since the pandemic began are starting to consider making them optional.
New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware have announced plans to lift their mask mandates. In Wisconsin, schools have had a patchwork of mask policies since Gov. Tony Evers' statewide mask mandate was overturned last March. Some have required them only for younger students, some for all students, and some have no mask mandate at all. The Elmbrook school district in the Milwaukee suburbs was even sued over its mask mandate.
When asked Thursday about other states relaxing their mask requirements, Evers reiterated that that decision must be made at the local level in Wisconsin.
"The ability to mitigate this disease just dramatically changes with the size of school districts and type of buildings," he said. "This is not my role, this is not the role of the Legislature."
The De Pere school district, near Green Bay, voted Monday to make masks optional for kindergarten through sixth grade — they were already optional for high schoolers.
"Our board voted this week to no longer mandate masks," school board president David Youngquist told WPR. "They are optional, we support it, we encourage it, we do not tolerate bullying or harassment of any student, teacher or parent who wants to wear a mask."
Youngquist said the board wanted to balance the concerns from health providers with concerns about learning — he noted that masks have made it hard for some younger students to hear and speak. If the student body at school goes above 5 percent positive for COVID-19, there's a provision to require masks within that school for five days. Throughout the pandemic, he said De Pere has worked to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible, creating a 10-point reopening plan in fall 2020 that prioritized keeping the virus from spreading.
Sign up for daily news!
Stay informed with WPR's email newsletter.
"With immunizations increasing — and we don't have a stance on immunizations, it's just a fact, we don't require it — and with the issues we're seeing in the classroom, it was time to make the masks no longer mandatory," he said.
In Milwaukee, which has been among the most cautious school districts when it comes to COVID-19 precautions, Milwaukee County chief health policy advisor Ben Weston said it may also be time to rethink the district's mask requirement.
"Certainly I think it's time to start having these discussions," he said during a weekly COVID-19 briefing. "It may not be time to drop the masking requirements, but it's time to start the discussions."
With every county in the state still at either a "very high" or "critically high" level of COVID-19 spread, though, many districts that have had mask mandates all year aren't yet planning to drop them.
The Kenosha Unified School District hasn't had any conversations about removing its mask mandate, according to spokesperson Tanya Ruder. In Eau Claire, spokeswoman Teri Piper Thompson said the district is continuing to meet weekly with the local health department to strategize its COVID-19 response, but doesn't have plans to drop the mask mandate with COVID-19 still circulating at such high rates.
"It's certainly not the wave that it was a few weeks ago, thank goodness — that's awesome, and we hope that that continues, but we have to look at (precautions) based at where we're at right now," she said. "As of today, we are not making a shift."
Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Reuters earlier this week that the agency is still recommending that schools require masks.