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Why Should Kids Wear Masks In Schools?

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LM Otero
/
Associated Press
Duval County Public Schools students will be required to wear masks to begin the school year starting Aug. 10 - unless their parents or guardians opt out.

Parents in Duval County Public Schools now must send kids to school in masks unless they opt out, after the School Board voted Tuesday night. 

The board’s maneuver was a response to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Friday executive order guaranteeing that parents must have the right to decide on masks. The district had previously intended to require masks for students, full stop, and is still requiring them for teachers and all other adults on campus for at least 30 days. 

Why Masks? 

In its review of available scientific studies, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have concluded that masks, when worn properly and consistently, are effective at preventing the spread of the  coronavirus in schools and should be worn by everyone over age 2 indoors. Masks are recommended as part of a layered approach to prevention, which also includes good ventilation and hand washing — and vaccines are still the No. 1 most effective protection available. 

One study that the CDC says shows the effectiveness of mask wearing for students is its analysis of Florida’s K-12 school districts when they reopened for in-person learning last year with varying degrees of protection measures in place. 

“Higher rates among students were observed in districts without mandatory mask-use policies and those with a higher proportion of students attending in-person learning. These findings provide further evidence for the effectiveness of universal masking, especially when physical distancing cannot be achieved,” the CDC concluded. 

Among the chorus of public health professionals calling for universal mask use in schools is the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Pediatricians had previously supported optional mask wearing in schools, but the current spike in child hospitalizations in the Jacksonville area and across Florida has doctors concerned. 

Dr. Adriana Cantville, a pediatric hospitalist at UF Health Jacksonville, addressed the Duval County Public School Board on Tuesday, saying, “I have had to give a parent the devastating news that we’ve done all we could, but we were not able to save their child. I can promise you there is no worse sound in the universe than a mother who has lost their child. Our children’s wellbeing and safety should not be optional. Masks should not be optional.” 

Similarly, Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease expert with Florida International University who is advising the Miami-Dade County School District, told WLRN News, while the politics might be complicated, the science is simple: Mandatory masks in schools would mean fewer kids and adults getting sick.

What We Know 

Transmission in schools is higher when there is higher transmission in the surrounding community. “If community transmission is high and community vaccination level is low, students and staff are more likely to come to school while infectious, and introduce SARS-CoV-2 into the schools,” the CDC says. 

Transmission in Duval and surrounding communities is at a very high level. 

Kids are ending up in the hospital including in the intensive care unit in Jacksonville. 

Why This Year Is Different 

Anyone trying to predict COVID’s spread in schools this year must consider the landscape has changed. The existing studies the CDC examined do not account for new variants of the virus, like the highly transmissible delta variant that’s driving up cases in Jacksonville and around the world.  

The situation has become more dangerous, especially for the unvaccinated. The Florida Hospital Association says despite widely available coronavirus vaccines, the state this week surpassed the previous peak of COVID hospitalizations. Jacksonville area hospitals are bracing for even higher expected surges.

The CDC’s updated mask guidance comes as delta is driving a small percentage of breakthrough infections among the vaccinated, which can be contagious when they are symptomatic. The good news is breakthrough infections are still rare, and vaccines are still highly effective against even the more contagious delta variant. 

Last year society was still on lockdown in many ways (restaurants, bars and gyms were closed, and students were not physically at school for much of the year). With loosened restrictions, delta and other variants have been able to spread almost unabated — mostly among the unvaccinated. 

Contact Jessica Palombo at jpalombo@wjct.org or on Twitter at @JaxJessicaP.