Children under 12 are still not eligible for vaccines against COVID-19. And just in time for back-to-school season, the highly contagious delta variant is causing pediatric cases of the coronavirus to skyrocket.
The good news is experts agree on how to keep kids and teachers safer at in-person school: Adults and older children should be vaccinated, and everyone should wear masks.
But many schools aren’t requiring them – and many states say they can’t, even if administrators and parents want to.
What’s a parent to do?
Masks work, even when not everyone wears one
Studies from last school year show mask-wearing is an effective prevention strategy, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report updated in July. But when mask use is inconsistent, the CDC found, outbreaks can occur.
That will be even more the case this year with the delta variant on the rise.
Most states have lifted mask mandates in schools but allow local districts to impose them as they see fit. Twelve states have imposed mask mandates in schools, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico – a group that has grown in the past week
Wearing a mask provides instantaneous protection. It can guard a person from infection even in environments where not everyone is masked, such as schools without mask mandates.
Should everyone wear masks? Why the CDC’s new mask recommendation applies to vaccinated Americans
“It’s similar to a bicycle helmet,” said Dr. James Versalovic, chief pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital. “We have things that we put on or around our bodies that may restrict our hearing or our vision momentarily, but we do that because these things protect us and they keep us safe.”
More than 90% of COVID-19 cases affecting children now are a result of the delta variant, Versalovic said. He worries more children will have to be hospitalized in the coming weeks. Texas, where he works, has a ban on mask mandates via executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican.
Children who contract COVID-19 may suffer symptoms of acute infection, but of even greater concern are the consequences of long-haul COVID-19. It’s estimated that 10% of children who contract COVID will have chronic symptoms that may include cardiac conditions, decreased lung function and behavioral or functional abnormalities.
With cases on the rise, 63% of parents think their child’s school should require unvaccinated students and staff to wear a mask, a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found. Rural and white parents were more likely to want schools to end COVID-19 safety protocols such as masking, and parents of color and urban parents were more likely to want them in place, another survey by the RAND Corp. found in May.
Passionate, angry parents filled school board meetings across the country this week – to plead for mask mandates or to rail against them.
“I myself have lost faith in the public school system,” one parent told the Michigan State Board of Education on Wednesday when it met to pass a resolution supporting decisions on mask mandates made by individual schools.
“This is a matter of life and death,” countered Mike Siegel, a parent of two elementary students in Austin, Texas, who is an attorney and a former Democratic congressional candidate.
Some school districts are implementing mask requirements in defiance of their state’s bans.
Schools in Houston, Dallas and Austin have implemented a mask mandate for teachers and students, despite an executive order from the governor prohibiting mask requirements in Texas. Several districts are also engaged in a legal battle over the executive order.
Late Friday, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona wrote a letter to Abbott backing the districts that have defied his executive order and adopted “science-based strategies” for reopening schools safely. Federal law, Cardona said, requires schools that received American Rescue Plan stimulus money to develop plans for safe return to instruction.
Similar acts of defiance and legal battles are playing out in other states with bans on mask mandates.