5 things to know about Memphis-Shelby County Schools’ decision to make masks optional

Memphis Superintendent Joris Ray stands next to a student’s desk while a teacher instructs from the front of the room with a mask on
In alignment with updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Memphis-Shelby County Schools dropped its mask mandate starting Monday. Here’s what we know. (Shelby County Schools)
The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

The same day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its school COVID guidelines, paving the way for many school districts to wind down mask mandates, Memphis-Shelby County Schools did so.

While Tennessee’s largest school district continues to strongly recommend masks in classrooms and school buildings, starting Monday, parents could opt their children out of wearing face coverings by filling out a school-provided form, administrators announced Friday. 

After the first few days of the new, relaxed masking policy, less than 2 percent of students are going maskless in schools, according to the district. Yet some teachers are afraid of the potential consequences for their health. And the public’s reactions to the decision have varied significantly. 

The new CDC guidance specifies that if new COVID cases and hospitalizations are low or moderate, and hospitals aren’t overburdened in the community, the mask requirements aren’t necessary. 

Based on those metrics, Shelby County residents are among the estimated 70% of Americans who live in parts of the country where those metrics are now low or moderate, according to the CDC. 

Nearly through the first week of no mask mandate in Memphis-Shelby County Schools, here’s what we know.

Few students have ditched masking … so far

As of Wednesday, just 1,408 students have opted out of masking, district officials said. That represents just 1.6% of the district’s roughly 100,000 students.

“Based on CDC guidance, options are appropriate at this time,” the district said in a statement. “Still, we acknowledge the science behind masking.”

Throughout the pandemic, Memphis-Shelby County Schools was one of the few in Tennessee to keep a mask mandate in place. 

If Shelby County’s metrics change, the district may reinstate the mask requirement for all students and employees, officials emphasized on Friday.

Appropriate freedom or a ‘bad decision’? Social media reaction mixed.

The new policy, which also applies to teachers and other school staff, generated mixed reactions. 

Some parents applauded the district’s decision, saying they should have the freedom to choose, or that many families are vaccinated and feel safe without school masking. They expressed excitement that their children would be able to see the facial expressions of their teachers and classmates.

Others criticized the move. One person on Facebook called the district’s shift a “bad decision” and added, “We are still in a pandemic!” Some worried about the district’s youngest students under age 5 who haven’t been able to get vaccinated yet. 

And others expressed concern that it might make weary educators feel less safe. Many parents might be excited right now, but next week they’ll be complaining about teacher resignations and absences, one person said on Facebook.

Many remain unvaccinated in Shelby County

While Shelby County’s COVID levels have been low since the omicron variant surge subsided, many residents remain unvaccinated.

Just 52% of county residents were fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, the state health department reported

And only about 20% of those ages 5-11 and 53% of 12- to 17-year-olds in Shelby County were vaccinated as of Wednesday, according to county health department data.

Some teachers are frightened, union leader says

Though relatively few parents have opted their children out of masking, some teachers are fearful — especially those who are immunocompromised.

“The pandemic is not gone and you’re in a classroom with 20 or more students,” said Anntriniece Napper, the president of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, one of two teachers unions in the district. “You can’t really spread the kids out when you’re in a closed environment like that.” 

Asked how the district is helping keep teachers safe in the midst of the new mask policies, a spokesperson emphasized that the human resources team “has continued to address concerns of employees with extenuating circumstances,” but did not elaborate.

“It’s been very stressful,” Napper said of the environment for teachers. “You have to take care of yourself because if you don’t, you can’t take care of others. And that’s what we teachers do.” 

Pediatrician: Keep wearing a mask if you’re worried

As the nation moves away from COVID shutdowns, the district’s decision to drop the mandate is a step in the right direction, said Dr. Sandy Arnold, the division chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis.

By now, Arnold said, most people have either been vaccinated or infected with COVID (or both), and Shelby County’s level of immunity is relatively high. 

Still, teachers who have a pre-existing condition or live with someone who does should continue wearing a mask, Arnold said. The same goes for anyone still worried about the virus, she also said.

“It’s a new era and everybody’s going to have to figure out what they’re comfortable with,” Arnold said. “Only you can decide what’s OK for you.” 

Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at swest@chalkbeat.org.

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