We Know Masks Work. So What Are Schools Planning?

The great school debate of fall 2020: Who will be required to wear masks, and will kids go for it?

America’s health experts have been increasingly vocal in their support of universal masking to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially in schools. Classrooms are indoors and full of children who may not be able to maintain adequate social distance, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has called universal face coverings — for all students, staff and teachers — “ideal.”

But as officials across the country continue to forge their initial plans for the fall, it remains unclear just how many schools and districts will require students to wear masks — and how those decisions might influence whether parents send their children in.

A handful of major school districts, including Los Angeles and Houston, have recently announced they will start the fall fully remote. Others, like New York City, have said they will adopt a hybrid model, having students in the classroom several days a week.

But many districts that intend to have children return to the classroom for some level of in-person learning have not yet issued any guidance for mask-wearing. Among those that have, the response to health officials’ recommendations has been mixed. In Orange County, California, the local school board recently voted to reopen without a mandate for mask-wearing, although the vote does not mean that will ultimately be the case. While on Thursday, Illinois’ Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) filed a preemptive lawsuit to ensure he can order teachers, staff and students to wear face coverings when schools reopen.

Those examples reflect the ongoing national fight over mask-wearing, an issue that continues to be politicized despite science that overwhelmingly supports the practice.

As Dr. Nathaniel Beers, a pediatrician with Children’s National Hospital, reiterated to HuffPost: “Masks are important because they help with protecting other people from us. Particularly in the case of children who may have COVID and may be asymptomatic, which certainly does occur, we want to make sure they’re not spreading disease unnecessarily.”

To be sure, both parents and teachers have expressed skepticism over students’ ability to wear masks all day long. And the AAP does acknowledge that there are several groups for whom mask-wearing may not be possible, including teachers, staff or students who have respiratory issues. (Beers said there is no evidence that mask-wearing causes respiratory issues for otherwise healthy children.) Mask-wearing may also be impossible for students with sensory or developmental issues.

Also a consideration? Age. The AAP says that mask-wearing may not be “developmentally feasible” for “younger students,” in which case schools could choose not to require them — if they can institute physical distancing measures of some kind.

Despite those exceptions and challenges, health experts believe widespread mask wearing in schools that open in the fall is feasible.

Beers noted that some districts moving forward with in-person learning this fall are considering an age cut-off, so that masks will be required for children in second grade and above, but only encouraged for first graders, kindergartners or even younger children.

“If they are pulling their masks down frequently, if they’re putting their hands all over their faces and all over surfaces, the masks stop having as much benefit,” he said. “If the mask is making them touch their face more frequently than they would normally touch it, it loses the benefit that we’re trying to get from it.”

Beers added that some schools may decide to have children wear masks periodically — for example, when they are doing an activity that requires them to be closer together or if they are singing out loud and expelling more air — but not necessarily for the full day.

For now, as parents await a clearer picture of what the fall holds, Beers urged caregivers to help their children practice wearing masks at home, so their first attempt at wearing a mask for an extended period of time is not this fall. Even if districts do not require mask-wearing, some parents may opt to have their own children wear a face covering throughout the day.

“That’s part of our job as parents this summer is to work on this with our children,” Beers said. “So that teachers aren’t the enforcers in the fall.”