As U.S. omicron case numbers drop from their January peak, some states with in-person instruction have started to drop their mask mandates for schools.
Yet not all are in agreement that masks should be unilaterally discarded in school settings. Indeed, the widespread move away from masking in schools has sparked debates among public health experts, teachers, and parents alike.
News about removing mask mandates made headlines this week when governors of four states — Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Oregon — announced plans Monday to lift statewide mask requirements in schools by the end of February or March. Meanwhile, in Illinois, Chicago-area school districts are removing mask mandates in the wake of an Illinois judge's decision to temporarily prevent Gov. J.B. Pritzker's school mask mandate; various schools and parents in the area spoke out against it. The state of California announced plans to end its indoor masking requirement for vaccinated people next week, but children in school will still be required to wear masks.
On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that universal mask-wearing in schools "still remains our recommendation."
"The guidance is very clear, which is that we recommend masking in schools. That is the recommendation from the CDC," Psaki said, referring to the guidance urging universal masking in schools over the age of 2, regardless of vaccination status. "It is also true that at some point when the science and the data warrants, of course, our hope is that that's no longer the recommendation — and they are continually assessing that."
Psaki added: "It's always been up to school districts. That's always been our point of view and always been our policy from here."
Are schools ready to go without masks? Infectious disease experts seem somewhat torn on the matter, which compounds the confusion over the issue. Most, but not all, of those with whom Salon spoke felt it was too soon.
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Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells Salon he is concerned that prematurely lifting mask mandates in schools could potentially prolong the phase of the pandemic where COVID-19 transitions from being in pandemic-mode to becoming an endemic disease.
"Generally speaking, I think we ought to try to transition from pandemic mode to endemic carefully and slowly, and I think we ought to look at the data and see that there is a sustained downturn in the number of cases, proportion of tests that are positive, hospital admissions and deaths," Schaffner said. "And when I say 'sustained,' what do I mean? I mean, beyond a few days — and into four to six to eight weeks . . . we need to continue to be careful before we can be carefree."
Schaffner said he worries that the governors doing this are ill-advised.
"We've opened up too freely, too early, before, and what did we get? We get a surge of infections every single time," Schaffner said. "Omicron has become among children one of the 10 leading causes of death. Everybody is on the same page that children are less severely affected than our adults— but that does not mean that they're not seriously affected; we have children being admitted to hospitals with Covid."
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Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases and associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of California, Davis, agreed that it's too early for schools to lift their mask mandates.
"We know that routine widespread masking has worked to make schools a safe place," Blumberg told Salon. "And we know there have been few outbreaks in schools when they've had the mask mandates in place, and this has assured that schools can remain open for in-person learning."
According to the CDC, a report from Arizona showed that schools in two of the state's most populous counties were 3.5 times more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks if they did not have a mask requirement, compared to those schools that required masking. (Notably, while the CDC and its authors stand by the study, it has faced criticism from some groups.) A separate report touted by the CDC found that children's COVID-19 case rates were lower in counties with school mask requirements.
Blumberg noted that the pediatric immunization rate was "lagging," and said that he thought that it was still safer to have mask mandates in place until the pediatric immunization rate rises and the high transmission rate spurred by the omicron variant dies down. Blumberg noted that models suggest that the rates of transmission in California are higher than when the delta variant was at its peak. "Even though it's not as bad as it was a month ago, there's a whole lot of COVID going around," he added.
Blumberg said he is optimistic that we will get to a post-pandemic moment, but only once pediatric immunization rates increase. According to the CDC, only 23.1 percent of five to 11 year olds are fully vaccinated in the U.S.; moreover, 56 percent of 12 to 17 year olds are fully vaccinated. An FDA panel is meeting on Feb. 15 to review Pfizer's data for low-dose Covid shots for kids under 5, possibly paving the way for approval soon.
Blumberg worries that if masking in schools ceases, more outbreaks will occur in school and schools will shut down.
"From the school and from the students' and parents' perspective, the worst thing that can happen is that there could be transmission that it's occurring in school — and this may result in the schools shutting down to limit that transmission to limit outbreaks, and then children won't be able to take advantage of in-person learning," Blumberg said. "I mean, we've got pretty robust data at this point at schools that have the mask mandates in place that they do have decreased risk of outbreaks."
Jeanne Noble, an associate professor of emergency medicine and director of Covid response for the University of California San Francisco Hospital emergency department, told Salon she disagrees. Noble believes it is time for children to go to school with masks.
"Our kids — our adolescents particularly — really have been suffering through a mental health crisis that has been recognized by the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, and masks just interfere with kids' relationships socially and emotionally," Noble said. "I think getting rid of the masks as soon as possible is helpful for the mental health of our kids."
Noble added she doesn't believe the data is convincing enough that masks in schools are needed, as she wrote in an op-ed she co-authored for The Atlantic last month. When asked what she would say to pediatricians and infectious disease doctors arguing otherwise, Noble said: "I would say that persistent masking of kids really fails a cost benefit analysis."
"We can't just continue to focus on children's health through the lens of disease control," Noble said.
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