Masked No More?

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Education Briefing

Noses — and maybe smiles — may soon make an appearance in some classrooms, now that several states plan to end mask mandates.

Amelia Nierenberg

Feb. 9, 2022Updated 12:57 p.m. ET

This is the Education Briefing, a weekly update on the most important news in U.S. education. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

Today, we’re covering states relaxing mask mandates in schools and the likely end of President Biden’s plan for free community college. Plus, a podcast recommendation.


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New Jersey will drop its mask mandate for students and school employees in the second week of March.
Credit...Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Children may soon go maskless in classrooms, as several governors have announced that they will end or not renew statewide mandates.

On Wednesday, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that Massachusetts will end its statewide school mask mandate on Feb. 28.

As elsewhere, the governor’s decision does not mean all students will be able to unmask on March 1. Rather, it allows local districts to follow their own policies, many of which have been painstakingly negotiated among school boards, district officials and teachers’ unions.

The announcement by Baker, a Republican, follows other states that have also loosened restrictions.

  • Connecticut will drop its mandate by no later than Feb. 28.

  • New Jersey will drop its mandate for students and school employees in the second week of March.

  • Delaware will end mandates by March 31.

  • Oregon will lift restrictions for schools on March 31.

  • And Pennsylvania rescinded its mask mandate last month.

The announcements, a loosely coordinated effort, are the result of months of public-health planning, back-channel discussions and political focus groups that began in the weeks after the November election.

Focus may now turn to Illinois, New York and California. Those Democratic-led states still have school mask mandates in place.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois will probably unveil a plan for school masking on Wednesday afternoon.

“We’re very close,” he said on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York announced the state will drop the state’s stringent indoor mask mandate, but has said she needs more time to decide about masking in schools.

Last week, Hochul said that officials were “striving” to remove mask mandates in schools, but that vaccination rates for younger children needed to rise.

“We’ll be making some announcements in the short term as we see these numbers progressing,” she said last week.

In California, officials announced Monday that the state will end a universal indoor mask mandate next week, and are reviewing the mask mandate for schools.

Cases are now falling in these and other states, after the Omicron variant fueled explosive waves of new infections. School districts can continue to require mask wearing or restore the rules if the virus spikes again.

“This is not a declaration of victory as much as an acknowledgment that we can responsibly live with this thing,” Gov. Philip Murphy of New Jersey said Monday. Murphy, who had imposed some of the nation’s toughest pandemic-related mandates, described it as a “huge step toward normalcy.”

Many prominent doctors have begun to question the value of requiring students to wear masks as new virus cases decline across the country. They cite the mental health strain that children have faced during the pandemic, and the educational value of seeing full faces.

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Credit...Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Jill Biden, the first lady, acknowledged on Monday that the Biden administration’s promise to provide two years of free community college to all eligible students is “no longer” part of the Democrats’ spending bill, which they are trying to whittle down in order to salvage.

The bill would have originally committed $45.5 billion to waive two years of tuition at community colleges for five years, a measure that has been cut from the framework.

“Congress hasn’t passed the Build Back Better legislation — yet,” Dr. Biden, a community college English professor, said to a summit of community college leaders on Monday. “And free community college is no longer a part of that package.”

The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know


Critics of the community college plan had pointed to high dropout rates and poor outcomes at some of the schools; fewer than 40 percent of community college students earn a degree within six years.

But research has shown that waiving tuition at community colleges could lift not just enrollment among students who might not otherwise attend college, but also their wages for years to come.

Eliminating tuition also makes the decision to enroll much easier, economists and researchers said.

“These aren’t just bills or budgets to me, to you, right?” Dr. Biden told the educators on Monday. “We know what they mean for real people, for our students.”



College

  • A lawsuit filed by three female graduate students accused Harvard of ignoring sexual harassment by John Comaroff, an anthropology professor.

  • The University of California will pay $243 million to hundreds of women who said they had been abused by a U.C.L.A. gynecologist.

  • After the University of Alabama faced criticism for a building named for a former governor and Ku Klux Klan leader, it added the name of the first Black person to attend the school. The decision drew a swift backlash; the student newspaper called it a “cowardly compromise.”

  • West Virginia State University will install opioid overdose rescue kits on campus.

  • The F.B.I. is investigating bomb threats to historically Black colleges as racially motivated violent extremism and hate crimes. “We have to be resilient,” the president of Howard University told The Atlantic. “The university was created for just this reason.”

  • Colby College has acquired two islands off Maine that inspired the family of Andrew Wyeth, an artist.

  • A good read: Sixteen unnamed people on the University of Pennsylvania women’s swimming team asked officials to not fight a policy that could ban transgender athletes from competing. The policy could bar their teammate, Lia Thomas, a transgender woman, from championship competition next month.

Race and identity

  • Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota signed a law banning transgender girls from competing on girls’ sports teams.

  • A great read: A teacher at a Jewish school in suburban New York was fired after a month on the job, after colleagues found a blog post she wrote criticizing Israel. She filed a lawsuit, accusing the school of violating labor law.

  • From Opinion: “The new bans are a response to contemporary political forces whose true motivation has nothing to do with books,” Margaret Renkl argues, reflecting on efforts to ban books like “Maus” from school curriculums in Tennessee.

And the rest …


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Credit...Kalpesh Lathigra for The New York Times

I’m absolutely engrossed in the newest podcast from Serial Productions and The Times, “The Trojan Horse Affair.”

The show starts with a letter that described an elaborate plot by Islamic extremists to infiltrate schools in Birmingham, England, and blooms into a frustrating and disturbing portrait about people leveraging racial fears to change education policy.

“The letter was later revealed to be a hoax,” my colleague Aina Khan writes about the project. “But at the time, it provoked national outcry and a political crisis over a city unfairly maligned as an incubator for Islamic extremism.”

As I listen, it seems as if the basic questions — What’s good for our kids? How did all of this fervor start? Who stands to benefit from a politicized frenzy? — too often fade from view.

That’s a podcast recommendation. For some easy watching, check out “Abbott Elementary,” a new mockumentary sitcom by Quinta Brunson about a Philadelphia public school, which our critic described as a relatable show for teachers during a period of intense stress.

That’s it for this week’s briefing. If you have questions for our education reporters, please write to us using this form. We will regularly answer questions in the newsletter.

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