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As Coronavirus Cases Rise, USF Public Health Experts Urge Masks At Schools

 Professors from the University of South Florida's College of Public Health are urging parents to mask their students and to watch for signs of illness as the school year approaches.
Professors from the University of South Florida's College of Public Health are urging parents to mask their students and to watch for signs of illness as the school year approaches.

Two professors from the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health went live on Facebook last week to talk about how recent increases in coronavirus cases might affect students as they return to school.

Professors Jill Roberts and Katherine Drabiak answered community questions about masks, school safety, and the spread of the virus.

“I do believe that kids should go back to school, the brick and mortar is really important for them for their learning,” Roberts said. “However, they should not be going back unprotected.”

COVID-19 cases per day in the U.S. have doubled in the past month, driven by the highly contagious delta variant, lagging vaccination rates and Fourth of July gatherings.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida reported 12,647 new cases of COVID-19 on July 21, the highest daily number of cases since late January. Cases in Hillsborough County are up by more than 125%.

“We are definitely looking at cases starting to peak again in Hillsborough County. It's here, it's in our environment,” Roberts said.

Students in Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco, Manatee and Sarasota school districts will return to class Aug. 10. Pinellas County students will return Aug. 11.

Many parents have expressed concern that the recent uptick in cases might spread among students — especially those under 12 years old, who are not yet eligible for any COVID-19 vaccines.

To respond to those concerns, the School District of Manatee County is considering separating classrooms based on mask preference. Similar ideas have not yet been proposed by other regional school districts.

The American Academy of Pediatrics released updated guidance for schools, recommending that all students and staff wear masks, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. USF Health researchers agree.

“I've been making this recommendation for a while now that it is time to go put those masks back on again for everybody — vaccinated or unvaccinated, children or otherwise,” Roberts said.

“We can put into place the mask policies that were there before. And we can also have very, very strict policies about sending kids to school only if they're healthy. We don't want any sick kids in the school.”

But last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis said there will not be another round of mask mandates at public schools in Florida.

“You’re not getting that done in Florida,” the governor said. “I’m going to protect people’s livelihoods, I’m going to protect kids’ right to go to school, I’m going to protect people’s right to run their small businesses.”

Roberts disagreed with DeSantis’ decision.

“I would definitely take the hard line on that. It should definitely change, and it shouldn't have been removed in the first place,” she said.

“Take away social distancing, take away masks — these guidelines were meant for vaccinated people, not unvaccinated. Children are unvaccinated. Even if the school tells you it's not mandatory, you can do as you see fit with your family. For us, the masks are going to stay in place.”

Drabiak tended to agree with Roberts, but noted that policy decisions have consequences.

“There's always a trade-off to keep in mind when we're making decisions about schooling and types of learning,” she said.

“Some of the mitigation measures that we took before relating to remote learning or school closures may have decreased transmission, but we also saw a spike in suicides, mental health problems, and students not attending school. This has a particular effect on exacerbating educational disparities and learning loss for lower socioeconomic students.”

Ultimately, their message to parents was clear: have students mask up and watch for signs of illness.

“If you do have a child that looks like they may be sick, or you do have a child that you know has potentially been exposed to someone with COVID, you're gonna want to quarantine them. You definitely don't want to send them to school and make others sick,” Roberts said.

“When we're talking about going back to school in the fall, we're gonna need to protect the children.”

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