Conflicting school mask guidance sparks confusion
Conflicting mask recommendations and orders from all levels of government and advocacy groups have emerged over the past few weeks, flustering the public as back-to-school season approaches.
Confusion is mounting over whether children should wear masks in school and whether their vaccination status should play a role in any guidance ahead of next month, when many schools plan to fully reopen for in-person learning.
President Biden addressed the debate this week, saying during a Wednesday town hall that he expects the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to urge unvaccinated students to wear masks in schools and to continue to advise vaccinated students that they don’t need masks.
“The CDC is going to say that what we should do is, everyone under the age of 12 should probably be wearing a mask in school,” Biden said at the town hall, as those under 12 years old are currently ineligible to get vaccinated.
But the American Academy of Pediatrics issued contradictory recommendations days before, calling for all students older than 2 to wear masks in school, regardless of their vaccination status.
The organization said many students can’t get vaccinated and that most schools are not planning to track the vaccination status of the children, although it noted that it “strongly recommends in-person learning.”
Mark Schleiss, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School, supports requiring masks for all children despite their vaccination status, saying that children make up an increasing percentage of new cases as more adults and seniors are vaccinated.
“We need to value and cherish the lives of these kids,” he said. “This idea that children are resistant to COVID-19, that they don’t have serious disease with COVID-19 is — I’m so tired of hearing that because it’s just simply not true.”
The CDC has documented almost 500 deaths among children during the pandemic.
He also pointed out that creating rules based on vaccination status could “single certain kids out” and put an “onerous burden” on schools to verify that status.
In the meantime, states and cities are taking matters into their own hands by announcing different school mask recommendations and mandates, leading to a patchwork of rules across the country.
This week, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C., announced plans to require all students to wear face coverings in school in the fall.
Meanwhile, at least nine states, including Florida and Texas, so far have banned school districts from requiring masks in schools, according to a CNN analysis.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki criticized Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) decision to prohibit mask mandates on Thursday, saying, “if I were a parent in Florida, that would be greatly concerning to me because kids under the age of 12 are not vaccinated.”
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only shot authorized for children ages 12 and older, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines can be given only to adults. Children younger than 12 are currently ineligible to get vaccinated, and it’s unclear if they will be able to by the time school returns.
Just 39 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to data from The New York Times. In comparison, almost 70 percent of adults and nearly 90 percent of those 65 and older have gotten at least one shot.
National Education Association President Becky Pringle said bans against masks are “not from the science.”
“We will fight against any effort to take away any strategies that will keep our students and educators safe,” Pringle said, adding that the union will “follow the science” and recommendations from scientists.
“We want to be in school together and in person, and if it takes wearing masks, then that’s what we want to do,” she said.
Both kinds of mandates requiring and banning masks, however, stray from the current CDC guidance on masking in schools.
The CDC updated its school masking recommendations earlier this month, saying that fully vaccinated students and teachers do not need to wear a mask indoors or outdoors. Unvaccinated students and staff could go without a mask outside during gym and recess but are urged to wear one indoors.
Amber D’Souza, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said finding a nationwide solution is difficult with varying rates of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the country.
Areas with surges should “consider masking because there is a real risk to the children and the community,” she said.
“So if we need a one-size-fits-all [approach], what’s happened in the past four weeks is pushing us more and more to needing masks,” she said. “But we need to respond to the data and look locally as well as nationally.”
“Each state and each district has to look at their rates, and if there is a concern that it will not be safe, I think it is much preferable to keep kids in person in school and wear masks than to have to revert to virtual learning,” she added.
Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, said on Tuesday that parents should do “what is locally asked for” in terms of masking students in schools.
Virginia took a different route this week by recommending students and staff wear masks indoors but allowing local school divisions to determine whether to implement requirements based on COVID-19 rates and expert recommendations.
The dispute over masks has also extended to adults amid the current rise in COVID-19 cases in many states and nationwide as well as the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant.
Los Angeles County reinstituted a mask mandate for all people indoors regardless of vaccination status last weekend. St. Louis city and county followed, saying residents will have to wear masks in indoor public places and on public transportation no matter if they were vaccinated.