If our goal is to get all kids back in the classroom for consistent in-person learning, we should embrace masking.
After a challenging pandemic school year, school districts in California are required to fully reopen for the 2021-2022 school year to allow all students to return to campus five full days per week.
This is great news for families tired of distance learning and hybrid models, and it addresses the three major concerns from school closures: learning loss, mental health from loss of social interactions and hardships for single parent and dual income families. Daily in-person learning will help students recover from any learning loss of the past year, students can socialize with friends daily, and working parents will once again have reliable childcare five days per week.
As parents, we’ve all endured hardships throughout the pandemic. Everyone wants to return to normal, and more importantly, no one wants to go backwards.
But the reality is that since California eliminated mask mandates and pandemic restrictions, the average daily case rate in San Diego County surged 1,800% from 2 cases per 100,000 population on June 19 to 36.6 per 100,000 on Aug. 6. And the number of COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized in the county increased over 680% in that same timeframe.
Despite this, and despite the fact that masks are no longer required outdoors, a group of parents is suing the state over masking in class. However, ending mask mandates would be counterproductive at this stage in the pandemic.
Masking indoors is part of a layered approach to minimizing on-campus transmission at a time when most students are still unvaccinated. Masks have been shown to reduce transmission by reducing viral spread from asymptomatic and presymptomatic wearers and by reducing the viral load to which the wearer is exposed. A Duke University study of over 1 million K-12 students and staff concluded that “proper masking is the most effective mitigation strategy to prevent secondary transmission in schools.”
Masking helps prevent disruptions to in-person learning. During the past school year, even schools that implemented hybrid models to keep class sizes small had exposures on campus that led to multiple quarantines, sending kids back to distance learning temporarily. But new state guidelines allow asymptomatic students exposed to an infectious student to avoid quarantine if everyone was wearing a mask.
Masking is also recognized by many parents as a vital component of safer in-person learning. This especially applies to children too young to be vaccinated or who have underlying health conditions, but it also applies to everyone at school.
California correctly introduced guidelines calling for all students and staff to be masked indoors, regardless of vaccination status, as validated by the American Academy of Pediatrics updated guidance on July 18. The AAP recommends “all students older than 2 years and all school staff should wear face masks at school” with few exceptions.
This ensures equal treatment and addresses tricky questions of vaccination status determination. Additionally, vaccinated students are not fully protected themselves or from infecting others, with the vaccines potentially only being 64% effective against the now-dominant Delta variant.
Although people tend to downplay them, the risks from COVID-19 infection in children are real. While most children have mild cases, children under 10 in San Diego County were hospitalized at higher rates than for adults ages 20-29.
Even mild cases can lead to persistent symptoms impacting quality of life for months, if not permanently, in almost half of children who contract COVID-19. Moreover, kids who have had COVID-19 are at higher risk for developing the rare, serious condition known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome.
While vaccines may be less effective in preventing infection against the Delta variant, they are effective at preventing severe illness. Requiring masking indoors will protect students under 12 until they have an opportunity to get vaccinated.
For students who are unvaccinated, medically vulnerable, or who have experienced the trauma of losing a family member to this virus, indoor masking provides a welcome layer of protection against infection, enabling them to more safely return to in-person learning. And for working parents and students who need a consistent and reliable routine, masking will reduce the need for students to quarantine and the disruptions that brings.
The predictable minor inconvenience of masking in classrooms is a small price to pay to avoid unpredictable and possibly tragic consequences for our children. In the end, all parents want their children to be safe and healthy when returning to in-person learning.
Elizabeth Shulok is a data scientist and small business owner. She lives in Escondido and has three children in the Escondido Union School District. Adam Fischer is a finance executive and career data analyst. He has two children and lives in Carmel Valley.