Face masks return to Philadelphia schools Monday. But for how long?

Students work in small groups at their desks while wearing masks during a class on Black history.
Students work while wearing masks at Northeast High School in Philadelphia. Though city schools had planned a temporary return to wearing face masks for April 18-22, a new city mandate may extend that period. (Alexandre da Veiga for Chalkbeat)

The Philadelphia school district will require mask wearing in schools and offices indefinitely when students return from their spring break Monday, following this week’s announcement by the city’s Department of Public Health.

Last month, the district announced that as a precaution to help minimize the risk of a COVID surge following the break, all students and staff would be required to wear a mask from April 18-22. But since schools are covered by the city’s mask mandate, they will be required to wear masks until the mandate ends, which could last longer than a week.

The move to reimpose the mask mandate makes Philadelphia the first major U.S. city to reinstate an indoor mask mandate after dropping one earlier this year, and the city’s school district, one of the 20 largest in the country, must now follow suit. 

District spokesperson Monica Lewis said the return of the mask mandate is a measure that helps to keep schools and offices safe. “We recognize that this is a move that some may wish wasn’t necessary,” she said.

Philadelphia is back to averaging 142 new cases per day over the last two weeks, which is more than double the number from last month and the reason why Mayor Jim Kenney is moving the city to “Level 2: Mask Precautions.” That level is part of the city’s system for how it determines what type of COVID restrictions it applies to restaurants and other public places. The system includes four tiers: Extreme Caution, Caution, Mask Precautions, and All Clear. 

In reimposing a mask mandate, the city is also departing from guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which emphasizes hospitalizations over case counts when setting parameters for precautionary measures like masks.

“Everyone in Philadelphia should be concerned about the increase in COVID-19 cases,” said James Garrow, communications director for the city’s health department. “It was only a couple of months ago when we were seeing thousands of new cases every day and schools were closing because of a lack of teachers and staff. We believe that if people wear their masks diligently, things won’t get as bad as they did in January.”

The city’s health department reported on Monday an additional 20,576 doses of COVID vaccine have been administered since April 4. More than 35% of children ages 5-11 in Philadelphia have received at least one vaccine dose. Among eligible Philadelphians ages 12 and older, 76% are fully vaccinated, and 93.6% have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“Given the recent rise in cases, we are moving to Level 2 in hopes of preventing higher case rates and stricter measures,” Kenney said Monday. “Our city remains open; we can still go about our daily lives and visit the people and places we love while masking in indoor public spaces. I’m optimistic that this step will help us control the case rate.”

For Jemille Q. Duncan, a senior at Philadelphia’s Multicultural Academy Charter School, the mandate seems like an overreaction to what is only a potential bump in hospitalizations.

“Aside from mask-wearing being annoying, no other major city has reinstated the mandate, and that is something worth noting. But we’ll soon see whether it was a misstep. If not, then great; if so, then the city will look more foolish,” Duncan said.

But Ellie Zdancewic, a junior at Masterman High School, said she’s happy about the mask mandate returning.

“I care about disabled and immunocompromised students who were put at risk when the mandate was lifted. I, for one, never stopped wearing my mask at school. I know some of my classmates found the masks to be annoying, especially during physical classes like gym, or while presenting to the class,” Zdancewic said.
Bureau Chief Johann Calhoun covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. He oversees Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s education coverage. Contact Johann at jcalhoun@chalkbeat.org

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