Schools may safely make masks optional in light of updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 guidelines, three physician-researchers from the nation’s most prominent medical schools argued in a Tuesday opinion piece.
The CDC updated its mask guidelines on January 14. According to the updates, respirators — masks with specialized filtering like the N95s– offer more reliable protection against the coronavirus than surgical masks, which protect a wearer from the virus better than cloth masks.
In an opinion piece published Tuesday by The Washington Post, Drs. Shira Doron, Westyn Branch-Elliman and Elissa Perkins wrote, “Respirators and other high-quality masks are highly effective at protecting their wearers, regardless of what people around them are doing. That makes the old mantra, ‘my mask protects you and your mask protects me’ obsolete.”
“The omicron wave will soon be behind us, and, barring the imminent arrival of the next variant, we can all hope for quieter times this spring,” the physicians’ article stated. “We urge public health and school officials to educate communities on one-way masking, emphasizing personal choice regarding self-protection and supporting those who choose to remain masked.”
Doron is Tufts Medical Center hospital epidemiologist and Tufts University School of Medicine associate professor. Branch-Elliman is an infectious diseases physician and Harvard Medical School associate professor. Perkins is the Boston Medical Center’s director of emergency medicine – infectious disease management and emergency medicine associate professor.
The physicians argued that they supported schoolwide mask mandates in the fall of 2020 because such rules were necessary to ensure schools could reopen their campus to in-person teaching, which is vital for children’s mental health and well-being.
However, according to the physician-researchers, the schoolwide universal masking policies had downsides.
“In certain parts of the country where CDC mask guidelines were rigorously adhered to, children have not seen the faces of their teachers or classmates since early 2020,” Doron, Branch-Elliman, and Perkins wrote. They argued that not being able to do so has impeded aspects of children’s “learning and development,” particularly for the youngest ones.
“Maintaining aggressive mitigation policies, including strident mask rules, also sends children, families and staff the message that schools are not safe. This is simply not true,” the trio reasoned.
The doctors’ recommendations could help resolve one of the most heated COVID-19 mitigation policy debates in the country: masks in schools.
As school districts and local governments enacted mask mandates during the pandemic’s spikes, individuals — parents included — questioned the mask rules, arguing that they only send a negative message on vaccine effectiveness, as the three physicians noted in their opinion piece.
During different periods of this three-year pandemic, multiple teacher unions turned out to be a stubborn public nuisance. They were stiff-necked in their refusal to go back to in-person teaching, despite the psychological and health benefits to children in doing so, adding to the woes of the nation’s working mothers and single parents.
Unions in Milwaukee, Chicago and other parts of the country called for a return to remote schooling earlier this month, as reported by the New York Times.
Democrats, according to the Times, fear the unions’ behavior would contribute to their 2022 midterm chances tanking just like support for unions who favored school disruptions led to Democrat former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s loss.
According to polling cited by the Times, restrictions on regular schooling upset many swing voters, leading them to vote for current Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who began his term in office with a series of executive decisions, including a ban on the infamous school mask mandates.
The physicians, also parents of schoolgoing children, also noted a “disturbing” practice in school districts where school staff has fostered a toxic punitive mask culture.
Punitive mask culture, according to the researchers, has many forms.
“Some older children, for example, have been given detentions and even suspensions due to ‘mask slippage’ or improper mask-wearing,” the physicians wrote. “Younger children have also been subjected to harsh rules to minimize the spread of covid-19 during lunch hours, often their only mask-free time during the school day.”
According to the doctors, some harsh rules included rules mandating that schoolchildren “eat in total silence during mealtimes.”
Other forms of “punitive mask culture” include rules in school where children have “expedited lunch” or those where children need “to pull their mask down to take a bite and pull it back up to chew.”
“The news about covid-19 and schools has been relentlessly negative, only compounding these issues and encouraging increasingly harsh restrictions in schools. This tells students that they are disease vectors while failing to recognize that they are also growing children in need of social interactions for proper development,” the physician-researchers argued.
“There is a youth mental health crisis in this country, yet punitive actions that limit social interaction and normal life continue. School should be a place where children feel safe and supported, even if their mask-wearing isn’t perfect.”
“Time and energy that staff spend policing mask use is far better spent on teaching and supporting children,” Doron, Branch-Elliman and Perkins wrote. “It’s time we stopped worrying about what others are doing and started focusing on protecting ourselves. We have many more tools in 2022 than we did in 2020, and our policies should shift to reflect these advances.”
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