Should kids be wearing masks when they return to school?

wearing masks in school
Photo via alamosbasement/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Mississippi’s Department of Health official Dr. Thomas Dobbs announced on Tuesday that there are currently seven children in the state’s intensive care unit, with two on life support, due to the recent surge in COVID delta variant cases. The news comes just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to advise that wearing masks in school buildings won’t be necessary for fully vaccinated students and teachers when classrooms open in August 2021.

The agency makes it clear that students benefit from in-person learning and says that safely returning for in-person instruction in the fall is a priority. However, the new guidelines are open to interpretation, as children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Furthermore, only about 24% of children aged 12-15 nationally are now fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, only 36% of teens who are 16 and 17 are fully inoculated. As a number of summer camp outbreaks have shown, young children can get and spread COVID, especially now that the delta variant has become the most dominant strain in the U.S.

Both Pfizer and Moderna expect to have data showing the effectiveness of their vaccines in younger children by the fall.

In the meantime, the CDC guidance emphasizes implementing layered prevention strategies, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, to protect those most vulnerable. But ultimately, state and local municipalities will decide how to implement these strategies, and there’s no clear-cut advice on how to differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated students when they arrive at school.

The ambiguity has the potential to turn mask-wearing in schools into another hot-button issue among parents and educators.

“We recognize that we’re about a month out from school starting in some areas,” Erin Sauber-Schatz, a CDC official who helped oversee the school guidance, told the Washington Post. “But we wanted to make sure that the recommendations that we were making for the fall school year were based on science and the best available evidence that we have at the time.”

“The school has to decide if and how they’re able to document vaccination status,” Sauber-Schatz added. She says that if that’s not possible, the safest thing to do is have a universal policy requiring masks.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, said in a statement that the new guidance provides “an important roadmap for reducing the risk of COVID-19 in schools.”

“As the delta variant spreads in many parts of the country and infections are increasing in younger people, it is particularly important that politicians, community leaders, parents, and educators work together to ensure that we all do our part,” said Pringle, noting that it’s crucial for everyone eligible to get their COVID-19 vaccination.

“Schools should be consistently and rigorously employing all the recommended mitigation strategies, including requiring masks in all settings where there are unvaccinated individuals present and ensuring adequate ventilation, handwashing, and cleaning,” she continued.

And the science backs it up. For example, a recently conducted study with Duke University and the University of North Carolina School of Medicine found that wearing masks was an effective strategy to prevent COVID-19 transmission in schools—even when physical distancing in the classroom or on school buses was not possible.

Researchers collected data from 100 North Carolina school districts and 14 charter schools comprising more than 1.28 million total students and 160,000 staff—which had provided full, in-person instruction with masking and minimal physical distancing from March-June 2021.

The report found that less than 1% of students in school buildings adhering to the protocols ultimately contracted COVID-19 at school, with 308 student cases and 55 staff cases.

“With masking, the schools clearly can safely deliver face-to-face education for children and adults,” said Dr. Danny Benjamin, a Duke pediatrician who co-chaired the study. “They can have one, two, or three children per seat on the school buses. The amount of distancing, whether it’s less than 6 feet, less than 3 feet or no distancing at all, it didn’t make any difference … providing there was masking in place.”

In the meantime, California originally took an overly cautious position. In the wake of the new CDC guidance, state health officials announced that the new school year would start with all students and teachers wearing masks. A few hours after that announcement, though, the state backed away and suggested local schools could mandate their own rules.

The California Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers and other school employees, supported the original mask mandate. Union President Jeff Freitas adds that teachers monitoring hallways between classes should not have to enforce which students are required to wear masks—which could also raise potential privacy issues.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten likewise applauded the CDC guidance as “grounded in both science and common sense,” while stressing that masking is a critical component.

“The guidance confirms two truths: that students learn better in the classroom, and that vaccines remain our best bet to stop the spread of this virus and get our kids and educators fully back to those classrooms for in-person learning,” said Weingarten. “It also makes clear that masking is important in the absence of vaccination.”

Read more on the coronavirus vaccines:

Sources: Washington Post, Duke Today, LA Times, ABC 24 News