A Failure to Respond: Public School Mask Mandates in the 2021-22 School Year

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Though nearly every school district in the nation opened in person for the 2021-22 school year, divisions over pandemic responses remained. This year, the flashpoint was school mask mandates.

CDC’s initial guidance recommended universal masking—100% of students and teachers 100% of the time indoors—but not all districts complied. Masking patterns across 2021-22 show durable divisions in schools’ responses, the frailty of public health guidance, and uncertainty about expectations for the next school year.

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Percent of students
Percent of students


R2L combines numerous data sources and leverages resources for data collection that includes, but is not limited to web scraping, machine learning, natural language processing, third-party data visualizations, government data and contractors to create a robust panel dataset for each district based on published school district website content.

Current week and historical district masking statuses are presented for the nation as a whole, and by district demographic and sociopolitical variables – such as district poverty, voting history, racial makeup, and more – on the R2L dashboard.

Our sample includes 8,600 school districts containing three schools or more, and represents the majority of the nation’s 130,000 schools. Explore the Return To Learn Tracker’s data on masking during the 2021-2022 school year, K-12 enrollment changes since 2020, and instruction during 2020-2021 school year.

This webpage is based on “A Failure to Respond: Public School Mask Mandates in the 2021-22 School Year” by Nat Malkus and Alex Audet. You can click here to read the full report if you’d like to learn more.