State Superintendent Chris Reykdal is asking Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and the state health department to remove the statewide mask mandate for students in schools and let local health officials make that decision instead.
“Current laws empower local health officials to assess health and safety risks and determine local strategies,” Reykdal said in a statement Wednesday. “Given the varied vaccination rates and adherence to other mitigation strategies across the regions in our state, it is time to return decision-making to local health officials.”
Masks were necessary when hospitalization rates were skyrocketing and there was limited access to tests, but that has changed, Reykdal said. The expected decline in hospitalization and case rates coupled with high vaccination rates are reasons why the state should reevaluate its policies, including the mask mandate, he argued.
Reykdal still recommends schools continue on-site rapid testing and quarantine those who test positive. He noted some health officials could require a temporary return to masks if cases spike or a new variant poses a risk.
“This is the nature of an ever-changing virus as it moves from highly impactful and unmitigated, to much less impactful and more treatable,” Reykdal said. “This change will empower schools to better focus their valuable time on supporting our students’ learning and well-being recovery and acceleration.”
In his announcement, Reykdal said masks have kept students and staff safe but also impacted the learning environment. But the Washington Education Association is worried removing the mandate could cause class disruptions.
“At a time when schools, particularly those in communities of color and low-income communities, are facing staffing shortages we must anticipate that lifting the mask mandate will exacerbate the shortages and could interrupt learning,” said Larry Delaney, president of the state teachers union, in a statement.
In early January, school districts across the state had to cancel classes because of staffing shortages, or return to temporary remote learning because of a surge in cases. In some cases, Seattle Public Schools didn’t have enough staff, and schools shut down.
Delaney said educators need access to high quality masks, sufficient sick leave and paid leave, and a metric that shows when a new mask mandate would be needed based on case levels. Since the beginning of the pandemic, WEA has called on the governor to follow the advice of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and their guidance to have masks in schools has not changed, he added.
Other states have relaxed or removed mask mandates. Governors in Oregon and California are ending indoor mask mandates. Governors in Oregon, Connecticut, Delaware and New Jersey have announced plans to end statewide mask mandates in schools.