by Ben Adlin
Nearly two years after the pandemic began, Seattle Public Schools has announced that masks will become optional across the district beginning Monday, March 14. The change comes after Washington’s statewide indoor masking mandate ended at midnight Friday.
In preparation for the statewide change, the State Department of Health updated its COVID-19 guidance for schools last week, advising that masks should be among a set of “optional prevention measures.” Seattle and King County health officials have issued similar guidance, saying they follow the lead of the State Health Department.
Seattle Public Schools (SPS) Superintendent Brent Jones said in a press release issued Wednesday that school administrators, in turn, are taking their cues from local health officials.
“As we have since the onset of COVID-19, Seattle Public Schools follows the guidance of Public Health on health and safety,” said Jones, who’s been serving as interim superintendent since last year and was only recently selected by the school board to fill the permanent role.
While masks won’t be required going forward, Jones said that individual students, teachers, and staff can still choose to wear them to reduce the risk of COVID-19. “While Public Health is no longer mandating masks, masking is an individual choice,” he said. “We won’t tolerate shaming or judging anyone in our schools for wearing a mask or not wearing a mask.”
Other Puget Sound-area school districts will also make masks optional as of Monday.
In Seattle, the change applies both indoors and outdoors on school grounds and includes all students, staff, volunteers, and visitors. SPS said it will continue to monitor infection rates in all schools and update its districtwide COVID-19 data dashboard.
Schools will also continue to make masks available for those who choose to wear them, and the district said it will continue other efforts to reduce transmission of the virus, including offering testing opportunities, ensuring air-filtration systems are at or above standards, and maintaining clean facilities and “physical distancing to the greatest extent possible.”
SPS will also offer periodic COVID-19 vaccination clinics for students and staff, although no vaccine has yet been approved by federal regulators for use in children under 5 years old.
A district representative told the Emerald on Thursday that 1,096 preschool students are enrolled in Seattle schools. Nearly all of those students remain ineligible for the vaccine.
Mandatory masking rules have been a controversial political topic throughout the pandemic, though health officials broadly agree that masks, especially high-quality N95 or KN95 masks, effectively reduce COVID-19 transmission. A report published last week by the National Institutes of Health concluded that schools with mandatory masking rules during the surge of the delta variant had 72% fewer cases of in-school transmission.
Some people want masks to come off out of a desire to return to normalcy. Others have raised concerns that they could interfere with childhood development and communication.
So far nearly a million people in the U.S. have been killed by COVID-19, and Black, Latino, and Indigenous people have consistently died at higher rates than white people. And new research indicates even mild infections can have long-lasting impacts on the brain.
Some students are already pushing back against the decision. Natalya McConnell, a sophomore at Franklin High School who helped form the Seattle Student Union, which has condemned the new mask guidance, told KNKX public radio that the decision risks spreading COVID-19 to students and their families.
“When one person doesn’t wear a mask, it affects the entire community. It affects someone else. Public health officials have told us that masks protect other people more than they protect ourselves,” McConnell said. “So when people say that it’s their choice, whether they wear a mask or not, that’s plain selfish.”
In the wake of Wednesday’s announcement by SPS Superintendent Jones, Seattle’s teachers union issued a statement criticizing the decision. But rather than attack the new masking policy directly, the Seattle Education Association (SEA) said teachers should have been more closely involved in the decision.
“We are deeply disappointed by Seattle Public Schools’ masking announcement today which is completely contrary to its prior statements and commitments to its educators and the community,” the group’s leadership wrote. “It is particularly frustrating given that we had scheduled to bargain masks all day on Friday, March 11.”
In emailed comments to the Emerald, SEA President Jennifer Matter accused the district of “unilaterally acting on the mandate” in violation of its contract with teachers.
The memorandum of understanding (MOU) between teachers and SPS, Matter said, “says that changes must be bargained, plus labor law gives unions the right to bargain over impacts that these changes would have on their work.”
SEA did not directly answer follow-up questions about whether it disagreed with the removal of the mask mandate itself or merely opposed the district’s decision to announce the move before specifics had been negotiated with teachers.
“SEA intended to bargain with SPS about the transition away from masking,” a representative replied. “Students, staff, and families need time to be prepared for what’s next. We don’t know what SPS’ plan is, and we didn’t get to bargain to inform it.”
“We had hoped for a better start to Dr. Jones’ permanent tenure,” SEA said in a statement posted to social media Wednesday afternoon. “SEA was making progress in our relationship but we now have serious concerns about his leadership. Sadly, our trust has been shaken and we have gone backwards. This does not bode well for future negotiations.”
Some parents in the district said criticism of Jones is misplaced. Though they’re worried about the impact of removing the masking requirement, especially for young or medically vulnerable children and their family members, the parents told the Emerald it was unrealistic to expect the district to unilaterally uphold the mask mandate after the statewide requirement ends.
“It comes from the top, I would say: Gov. Inslee,” said Manuela Slye, a West Seattle High School parent and former president of the Seattle Council PTSA.
Slye said she’d have preferred to see the mask requirement remain in place longer. “I don’t see a rush,” she said, noting that many students are still too young to be vaccinated, while others have young siblings or live in multigenerational households at greater risk of serious illness from COVID-19. “But I do understand that Gov. Inslee proclaimed that it was time to lift the mask mandate.”
Inslee initially announced that mask mandates would lift on March 21, then later adjusted that date to March 12.
It’s not clear whether school officials could enforce an ongoing masking requirement without the legal backing of State or local mandates. Masking opponents have frequently challenged mandates in court.
“What other option did he have?” Slye said of Jones’ announcement.
Slye thinks the ensuing controversy about who had the authority to formally lift the masking requirement misses the larger issue. “We’re losing focus on what we need to center, which is the safety and well-being of students,” she said.
“The mandate is lifted. Now we, as a community, we’re deciding when and how we’re going to move forward,” Slye added. “Our option is to continue to be careful and be mindful, and continue centering the students that we want to protect.”
Sebrena Burr, another past Seattle Council PTSA president and the parent of a Cleveland High School student, said she and her family will keep wearing masks even after the mandate lifts. “My child will stay masked. I lost a family member,” she told the Emerald. “My family is grieving.”
The district’s decision to tell parents about Monday’s change to masking rules in advance was likely meant to give parents more time and leeway to decide what’s best for their families, Burr said. The policy decision on masking, she said, rested with state and federal health agencies.
“I respect the superintendent, who’s looking at what mitigations we need to make in our buildings to honor students,” Burr said, adding that criticism targeting Jones personally was unwarranted.
“I’m going to tell you as a Black woman: Often, because of skin color, we throw Black men under the bus for things they don’t have any decisions in, and that’s what I see in this,” she said. “Adult situations really get in the way of what we’re trying to do for kids.”
Jones, for his part, wrote in an email to parents and the community on Thursday evening that he understands that “each of us hold different beliefs and comfort levels around the personal choice of wearing a mask” and welcomes discussion of the mask guidance change.
He clarified that beginning this week, “masks will be strongly encouraged but not required.”
“We will not hesitate to return to a mask mandate if health and safety data shows that it is necessary,” the superintendent wrote. “I know this is a difficult transition and these recent changes have moved quickly and created uncertainty and anxiety for many in our community.”
As for SEA’s criticisms, Jones said he’d been in conversation with the union about upcoming changes to health and safety protocols, including masking. “My initial perception was that SEA leadership was on board with the need for this decision after our early conversations. I remain committed to working with labor partners to face whatever challenges this period of transition presents us.”
Brandon Hersey, president of the SPS board of directors and a representative of District 7, which includes most of South Seattle east of the Duwamish River, told the Emerald that district leaders have said throughout the pandemic that they would follow the lead of state and local health agencies. He said the district is still “strongly recommending that folks mask up.”
“We understand that this presents a great change, and one that will cause anxiety and fear in a lot of families,” Hersey said. “We hear that, we share in that with you, and we will make this transition together and be stronger because of our shared relationship.”
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
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