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TESOL International Association Statement on the Issue of Masks in U.S. Schools

by Stephanie Johnson | 09/02/2021

The new 2021-2022 school year has started for most PK-12 learners in the United States and TESOL International Association (TESOL) applauds the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts to ensure all students can safely access in-person education. The department’s bulletin, “Return to School Roadmap,” issued last month provides guidance for those returning to school. This roadmap encourages prioritizing the health and safety of educators, staff, and students through the adoption of universal indoor mask mandates for in-person education activities, per the CDC’s guidelines, viewable here

In the United States, English learners are disproportionately at risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19. Over 77% of these learners in the United States are of Hispanic/Latino descent and have faced increased inequities in terms of healthcare access, safe housing, and financial stability during the pandemic. Furthermore, they have also experienced learning loss during the past two school years while coping with fewer resources for remote learning, including less access to reliable Internet service and limited support in their homes for help with assignments and technology. Returning to school, for those able to do so, is a positive move. 

It is imperative that policy makers at the state level do not politicize public health measures proven to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission within schools. Texas and Florida, with over 18.7% and 10% of their students classified as English learners, have both taken measures to ban universal mask mandates in the classroom. Such actions threaten the health and safety of all students and educators, especially those from immigrant and racio-ethnic minority groups. There is growing evidence that the use of surgical masks limits the spread of COVID-19. In Bangladesh, a large-scale study of 340,000 adults, including 163,000 in a control group, concluded that mask wearing decreased both the spread and symptoms of COVID-19.

TESOL is committed to advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion in education and believes communities and school districts should not be prohibited from determining how to best protect the health of their teachers, staff, and students, including those with disabilities, those with underlying health conditions, those from vulnerable populations, and anyone not yet able to receive vaccination against COVID-19.