Superintendents once again had to pivot on in-person learning plans after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidance recommending universal masking in schools, just weeks before the start of the academic year for many districts.
But in places where politics take precedent and pushback is strong, pivoting isn't always easy. By following the CDC's guidance and mandating masks, some superintendents are facing pressure from state governments, local leaders, parents and teachers — even gambling their jobs in the process of making decisions.
'There has to be some kind of civil disobedience'
While a majority of states have left masking decisions in the hands of local leaders, a growing number of red states had already prohibited or were moving toward prohibiting mask mandates prior to the updated CDC guidance calling for universal masking.
Since the recommendations, nine states have pushed forward with mask mandate bans, according to Pew Charitable Trusts: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. Eleven others — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, Virginia, Oregon and Washington — swung in the opposite direction, requiring universal masking in line with federal guidelines.
Notably, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson expressed regret last week for his state's ban on mask mandates, which was blocked by a court as lawmakers weighed an amendment to it.
In states where mask mandates are prohibited, some superintendents are requiring masks despite possible consequences from state leadership, citing their conscience as a motivating factor behind their opposition. In Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott banned mask mandates through an executive order, the Dallas Independent School District was among the early districts to defy such a ban.
"It's one of those guts reactions where you gotta take action," said Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. "There has to be some kind of civil disobedience. If you think something's not right, you cannot put your personal career and feelings in front of what's the right thing to do."
In Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis also signed an executive order against mask mandates, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho announced a similar decision Wednesday.
If he walked back on the advice of medical experts, "I would not be who I am. I would not live up to the training that I've obtained," Carvalho said during a press conference. "At no point shall a threat against my salary factor into the decision that I will make regarding the best interest of students and teachers in our community. I cannot compromise on that."
"I don't want to go out this way, but you gotta do what you gotta do, what's in the best interest of your school district," Hinojosa echoed.
However, while the threat of blowback still hangs over the superintendents' heads, courts in some states, including Texas, have sided with districts' decisions to disobey executive orders by blocking prohibitions on mask mandates. Hinojosa said he made his decision knowing how the courts would likely interpret the executive order, though the judges' current rulings are only temporary.
In Florida, Debra Pace, superintendent of Osceola County School District, said while the opposing views of the CDC and the state's governor have put districts in a "challenging place," she will not be mandating masks against the governor's orders and will instead "trust parents and our staff members to make the best decisions to protect their health and the health of others."
If DeSantis walks back his order, Pace said, she would reconsider the decision with her school board.
Pressured by local leaders, others go against state mandates for masking
In Illinois, where Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has mandated masks rather than prohibiting them, a contrasting landscape is creating a similar dilemma. Brian Schwartz, an education lawyer who has served as general counsel for the Illinois Principals Association for over two decades, said while most Illinois districts have required masks in line with the state order, few and far places in between have made them optional after local boards of education directed some administrators to not follow the state mandate.
"So it puts administrators in a real tough position of, 'Do I risk being fired for insubordination, or do I risk getting sued for following a clearly illegal directive from my employer?'" Schwartz said.
Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of policy and advocacy for AASA, The School Superintendents Association, said she could also foresee a scenario where community members run for school board in order to terminate the superintendent after an unpopular decision to require masks. "We're definitely seeing conversations about challenges to board elections or to board candidates," Ellerson Ng said.
Schwartz said the consequences administrators will face of going against orders from employers or the state is "the million-dollar question right now."
Damned if they do, damned if they don't
Superintendents' decisions continue to divide their communities.
Hinojosa said while the majority of his district seems to support his decision, he's received a few letters from teachers and parents opposing his mandate, including an email from a teacher who said she regrets her decision to work for the district.
Some parents also remain steadfast in their decision to not mask their children. "You have parents who very much want us to mandate masks for our children, and you have parents who very much are adamant that we won't tell them what to do," Pace said, adding her community in Osceola County has a "50-50 split" between the two.
In Alaska's Anchorage School District, Superintendent Deena Bishop's recommendation for universal masking has placed her at odds with Mayor Dave Bronson. The school board has thus far refused to overturn Bishop's recommendation. "This should be about parental and student choice, not top-down government mandates," Bronson said in a statement.
"Before the pandemic, I would've said hands-down [superintendents'] least favorite decision was snow days, and this is just a yearlong conversation about snow days on steroids," said Ellerson Ng. "They're damned if they do, and they're damned if they don't."