Above: Photo courtesy of Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash
By Marisa Kambour
Maybe you’ve seen the signs. There are the literal signs: “Unmask Our Children” sprouting up on local lawns. And then there are the less tangible signs of a mild unrest – the petitions emailed around, the arguments on social media, the ambiguity and lack of definitive policy on national, state, and local levels. Signs that point to anger, confusion, frustration and disagreement over what the return to school should look like in the fall.
A promising sign in the midst of all this is the release of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ report “COVID-19 Guidance for Safe Schools.” Finally, doctors who are experts on the health of children are giving clear guidance for best practices for school this fall. Their report includes what will likely be an unpopular recommendation, but one the East Greenwich School District should follow: universal masking for all staff and all students over two years of age. This, in addition to other best practices to reduce transmission (vaccination, testing, ventilation, etc.), is our district’s best chance for keeping children safe in school this fall.
Masks may have started to fade from memory for some with the shift to prioritizing vaccination. And while the COVID-19 vaccine has contributed to a significant drop in cases in countries and communities with access to it, a large portion of the student population—anyone under 12 years of age—is still not eligible to receive the vaccine. With a zero percent vaccination rate in this group, the chance of spread while unmasked in close, indoor quarters remains high. Wearing masks is a proven mitigation technique to reduce transmission that should be revived, especially as the Delta and other variants spread rapidly across the globe.
Even for those who are eligible to be (and hopefully are) vaccinated – adult staff and middle and high school students – the AAP still recommends universal masking. Some will argue this is unnecessary since vaccinated individuals are far less likely to spread the virus. But will the district make vaccination mandatory for employment? For students? It does not seem likely at this point. Without a way to monitor vaccination status among the student and staff population, universal masking allows for consistent messaging and simplified enforcement. A teacher no longer has to remember the vaccination status of each middle schooler who enters their classroom throughout the day.
It may also be time for a reminder that masks are designed to protect not just the person wearing them, but those around them as well. As the CDC states, “Multi-layer cloth masks block release of exhaled respiratory particles into the environment.” My child wearing a mask helps protect his classmates, his teachers, and his school’s staff. It protects you; it protects your child. If we truly care about the well-being of our community, then “optional” masking is not the best way to protect those around us.
To be sure, there are parents who claim their children’s experience is hindered by mask wearing: that masks are uncomfortable, hot, hard to breathe in, etc. They may cite retracted studies to try and prove their point. But in the grand scheme of the pandemic, masks are a minor inconvenience that require a small sacrifice for a greater good. There are also those who state that high vaccination rates and low case counts are enough to forgo masking. The pandemic may be waning, but it is far from over. Stalled vaccination rates, unknown variants, new hotspots, rising case numbers: these are the signs reminding us that we can’t let our guard down yet.
Most parents, caregivers, administrators, and teachers in our community share a common goal: to have our children physically present in school in the safest environment possible. Being in school with their peers benefits their mental health. Right now, universal masking is the best way to preserve their physical health. And East Greenwich schools adopting a mask policy in line with the AAP’s recommendations would be a promising sign of a community working together to end the pandemic.
Marisa Kambour is the parent of two East Greenwich Public School students. This past year, one was homeschooled while the other participated in distance learning; both have been looking forward to a return to in-person school this fall.
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