By Trisha Powell Crain

Students work during class at Sherwood Elementary School in Phenix City. In Februrary, the district lifted mask requirements at some schools. Trisha Powell Crain/

Nearly all Alabama school districts and some universities have now dropped mask requirements, but none have banned them outright, and proposed state bans have not made progress in the legislature.

According to the state’s K-12 school COVID case tracker, cases among students and staff dropped to 1,972 this week, a fraction of the high of 26,260 cases reached the week of Jan. 20.

Ed Lab tracker: See your school district’s week-by-week COVID cases here.

Throughout January, many schools and some districts were forced to shift to remote learning, closing school buildings primarily because of staffing shortages due to COVID and quarantine requirements.

As of today, ADPH still lists community transmission of COVID as high in all but nine of Alabama’s 67 counties.

Meanwhile, Alabama lawmakers have not acted on two bills related to masks in schools.

Rep. Chip Brown, R-Hollinger’s Island, filed a bill, HB18, to require K-12 schools to allow parents to opt their child out of any mask mandates enacted by school officials. It has been assigned to the House health committee. Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, filed a bill, HB188, that would ban mask mandates in K-12 schools and reduce funding for any district that required masks. It has been assigned to the House education budget committee.

The Alabama Department of Public Health Chief health officer kept a statewide mask order in place from July 2020 until April 9 of last year, at which time the decision was then left to local officials.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey praised schools and universities for dropping mask requirements in light of falling COVID cases statewide.

“I applaud the Alabama schools and universities who have made the decision to end mask mandates,” Ivey said Friday. “Given the health data we’ve seen in Alabama and across the country, I encourage all schools to continue removing these mandates — we don’t need them in Alabama. As a former teacher, I know well that parents should be in charge of making the best decisions for their kids, not government.”

Ivey is running for re-election this year and has been criticized by opponents for not banning school mask mandates. In a recent campaign ad, Republican opponent Tim James said, “Masks are a parent’s choice. It’s your decision. I’m Tim James. As governor, I’ll stop forced masking. It’s time to fight back.”

Four states currently prevent school districts from setting universal mask mandates, according to EdWeek, and six others have bans tied up in legal proceedings.

Masks in schools have been a divisive topic nationwide, with some saying the decision about whether a child wears a mask should be up to the child’s parent and others saying masks should be worn to protect teachers and students in schools.

Experts generally agree that masks can be helpful in slowing the spread of coronavirus, and scientific research that has trickled out during the pandemic has found masks to prevent the spread of COVID in schools, particularly when other mitigating strategies like social distancing are used.

Multiple polls of parents nationwide show the majority of parents support masking in schools, though no Alabama-specific polls have been published.

While no scientific evidence exists that masking is itself harmful to children, some experts and parents believe that prolonged masking can have negative effects on child development and socialization.

School officials in Alabama have said masking has had a positive impact on attendance because it reduces the number of students who are required to quarantine. State health rules require students to quarantine for at least five days if they are a close contact to someone who contracts COVID unless both students are masked.