Amid declining cases and opposition to masks, Gov. Carney hints at ending Delaware school mandate in February

Students and staff at Odessa High School near Middletown are wearing mandated masks. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Students and staff at Odessa High School near Middletown are wearing mandated masks. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

With scores of parents and others voicing opposition to Delaware’s mask mandate in schools, Gov. John Carney suggested he’s leaning toward lifting the requirement in early February.

Carney’s coronavirus-fueled mandate for all students and staff in schools statewide has been in effect since classes started in late August. He extended it this week until February 8.

That’s the last day Carney can require masks without declaring a State of Emergency or instituting a permanent rule in state regulations. Carney ended a 16-month State of Emergency in July.

But with 5- to 11-year-olds now getting the coronavirus vaccine, the governor said he would prefer not to extend the mask mandate again during the winter.

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“It’s our hope that, by February, we will be able to lift the state mask requirement,’’ Carney said. “Our focus over the coming weeks and months will be on increasing Delaware’s vaccination rates. That’s how we’ll finally move past this pandemic. … Getting the shot will keep Delaware’s children protected, and keep them in school.”

A summer-long spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations statewide has subsided over the last two months. As of Wednesday, the state’s weekly average for new daily cases was 247 — a 48% drop from 474 on Sept. 15. A total of 155 residents were hospitalized on Wednesday — 43% fewer than on Sept. 11.

Purnima Montagne, incoming president of the Delaware Parent Teachers Association, said her organization supports any measures to keep kids in their school buildings but recognizes that many families are weary of the rule or oppose masks entirely.

“Masks are kind of a trigger point for a lot of people. So if we can keep too many kids from having to be out or teachers having to be out because of quarantine or isolation, then I think it’s the right move, even if it’s not popular.”

About 2% of Delaware’s roughly 140,000 public school students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the school year began.

Shelley Meadowcroft of the Delaware State Education Association, which represents teachers and other school employees, agrees that the mask mandate is beneficial.

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“Extending it to February 8th is fine with us,’’ she said. “It’s still keeping our students and staff as safe and healthy as possible.”

Students at Odessa High near Middletown, which WHYY visited last month, said the masks were a hassle but worth it to be able to have in-school learning again. Yet a flurry of public comments against the mandate have been submitted to the state since the Carney administration sought input about extending it past February 8.

“It’s unconstitutional, unnecessary, ineffective and harmful in many ways,’’ wrote Delawarean April Elias. “Wearing masks for 6-8 hours a day, social distancing, contact tracing” and other mitigation measures “have created an epidemic of anxiety, depression and fear in our children. It must stop!”

Andy Korpela of Smyrna invoked passages from the Bible such as this from the Gospel of Matthew: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.”

Korpela wrote that the state Department of Education “should not be acting as a physician and treating all children as if they are diseased. Please allow the parents and/or guardians to decide if their child should wear a mask.”

Meadowcroft noted that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf is leaving masking up to school districts after January 17.

“I don’t know if that’s something that Carney will decide,’’ she said, “and take away the state choice and leave it as a district choice, or if he just will continue to push it through the rest of the school year.”

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