It’s the season of respiratory illnesses: COVID-19, the flu, and RSV. But masking among educators, as among the general population, is largely a thing of the past.
New nationally representative survey data from the EdWeek Research Center show that just 3 percent of educators say they wear a face mask daily or almost daily at work this school year. Sixty-one percent never do.
The other 36 percent say they wear a mask at work only in certain circumstances, like if they’re not feeling well or are trying to avoid getting sick.
The survey of nearly 1,000 teachers, school leaders, and district leaders was conducted between Nov. 30 and Dec. 6, as virus activity began to ramp up. Now, at the start of the new year, COVID-19 and flu cases are surging.
“We haven’t seen any signs that we’re peaking, especially in terms of influenza,” said Andrew Pekosz, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies respiratory viruses. “I fully expect that for at least six to eight weeks, we’ll have very significant respiratory virus activity across the country.”
The EdWeek Research Center survey found no significant difference in mask-wearing between job titles—teachers were not more likely than administrators to wear a mask, for instance. But geography did influence educators’ masking decisions.
Seventy percent of educators working in a rural or town school district said they have never worn a mask this school year, compared to 58 percent in a suburban district and 51 percent in an urban district.
The size of the district also made a difference: Educators in smaller school districts were more likely to say they never wore a mask than those in districts with 10,000 or more students.
Teachers voice pros and cons of masking at work
Some teachers say teaching in a mask can be uncomfortable and makes it more difficult to connect with students, who can’t see their facial cues and smiles.
“I found it very difficult to talk and teach with a mask on,” said Jayne Swan, a 3rd grade teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y., who stopped wearing a mask as soon as it was no longer required. “For me personally, it was very uncomfortable. It made me feel hot and disgusting—talking all day inside that mask.”
She had COVID-19 over winter break, but she said she isn’t too worried about picking up illnesses at work. She keeps a window cracked in her classroom and washes her hands frequently.
“Other than that, I don’t feel like the mask is necessarily going to help me,” Swan said. “I’m surrounded by children all day.”
Masks can also get in the way of teaching reading, since students watch teachers model the correct tongue placement and mouth formation when sounding out letters and words, educators have said. English learners are also watching their teachers’ mouths during pronunciation lessons.
Even so, teachers who have worn a mask regularly this school year say they’ve remained healthy—and they don’t want to forgo that protection.
“It’s more about reducing my overall risk,” said Michaela Tracy, a high school math teacher in Lexington, Mass. “I’m more social now, and I’d rather not get sick at work. I’d rather minimize my contacts at work, so I feel more open about seeing … [immuno]compromised family members.”
“It’s not just COVID, we have plenty of other illnesses going around,” she added. “There’s all kinds of things you just don’t want to get.”
Tracy said she used to get sick three or four times a year from picking up germs at school. So far this school year, she hasn’t gotten sick at all.
Susan Smith, a secondary social studies teacher in Minnesota, said just two or three employees out of the 120 at her school regularly wear a mask. She’s one of them, mostly because her sister is going through chemotherapy. Smith is wary of bringing any infections to her.
So far this school year, Smith said she’s avoided getting COVID-19 or the flu, even though several teachers at her school were sick over winter break.
Smith said she’s had a few people question why she’s still wearing a mask when most others aren’t, but she doesn’t mind: “To me, my personal health is way more important than your opinion of me,” she said.
Educators are masking less than a year-and-a-half ago
Mask-wearing among educators has decreased since the EdWeek Research Center’s last query about it in summer 2022.
Then, 12 percent said they planned to wear a mask regularly in the coming school year without it being required. Nearly half said they didn’t plan to wear a mask in the 2022-23 school year at all, and 36 percent said they’d wear one in certain circumstances, such as when they’re not feeling well.
A different EdWeek Research Center survey, conducted in fall 2022, found that most educators continue to go to work when they’re sick, in part because they feel like they have too much work to call in sick.
But public health experts say that going to work sick can spread viruses. Strategies like masking can help.
“Mask requirements are no longer around, but certainly that doesn’t take away from the fact that masks are a proven way to limit the spread of respiratory infections,” Pekosz said, adding that a well-fitting mask will help protect someone even if no one else in the room is wearing one.
People should also get vaccinated against both the flu and COVID-19 to prevent serious illness, he added.