COMMENTARY

Universal Masking Is the Key to Safe School Attendance

Kristina A. Bryant, MD

August 24, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

"I want my child to go back to school," the mother said to me. "I just want you to tell me it will be safe."

As the summer break winds down for children across the United States, pediatric COVID-19 cases are rising. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly 94,000 cases were reported for the week ending Aug. 5, more than double the case count from 2 weeks earlier.1

Anecdotally, some children's hospitals are reporting an increase in pediatric COVID-19 admissions. In the hospital in which I practice, we are seeing numbers similar to those we saw in December and January: a typical daily census of 10 kids admitted with COVID-19, with 4 of them in the intensive care unit. It is a stark contrast to June when, most days, we had no patients with COVID-19 in the hospital. About half of our hospitalized patients are too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19, while the rest are unvaccinated children 12 years and older.

Vaccination of eligible children and teachers is an essential strategy for preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools, but as children head back to school, immunization rates of educators are largely unknown and are suboptimal among students in most states. As of Aug. 11, 10.7 million U.S. children had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, representing 43% of 12- to 15-year-olds and 53% of 16- to 17-year-olds.2 Rates vary substantially by state, with more than 70% of kids in Vermont receiving at least one dose of vaccine, compared with less than 25% in Wyoming and Alabama.

Still, in the absence of robust immunization rates, we have data that schools can still reopen successfully. We need to follow the science and implement universal masking, a safe, effective, and practical mitigation strategy.

It worked in Wisconsin. Seventeen K-12 schools in rural Wisconsin opened last fall for in-person instruction.3 Reported compliance with masking was high, ranging from 92.1% to 97.4%, and in-school transmission of COVID-19 was low, with seven cases among 4,876 students.

It worked in Salt Lake City.4 In 20 elementary schools open for in-person instruction Dec. 3, 2020, to Jan. 31, 2021, compliance with mask-wearing was high and in-school transmission was very low, despite a high community incidence of COVID-19. Notably, students' classroom seats were less than 6 feet apart, suggesting that consistent mask-wearing works even when physical distancing is challenging.

One of the best examples of successful school reopening happened in North Carolina, where pediatricians, pediatric infectious disease specialists, and other experts affiliated with Duke University formed the ABC Science Collaborative to support school districts that requested scientific input to help guide return-to-school policies during the COVID-19 pandemic. From Oct. 26, 2020, to Feb. 28, 2021, the ABC Science Collaborative worked with 13 school districts that were open for in-person instruction using basic mitigation strategies, including universal masking.5 During this time period, there were 4,969 community-acquired SARS-CoV-2 infections in the more than 100,000 students and staff present in schools. Transmission to school contacts was identified in only 209 individuals for a secondary attack rate of less than 1%.

Duke investigator Kanecia Zimmerman, MD, told Duke Today, "We know that, if our goal is to reduce transmission of COVID-19 in schools, there are two effective ways to do that: 1. vaccination, 2. masking. In the setting of schools ... the science suggests masking can be extremely effective, particularly for those who can't get vaccinated while COVID-19 is still circulating."

Both the AAP6 and the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society7 have emphasized the importance of in-person instruction and endorsed universal masking in school. Mask-optional policies or "mask-if-you-are-unvaccinated" policies don't work, as we have seen in society at large. They are likely to be especially challenging in school settings. Given an option, many, if not most kids, will take off their masks. Kids who leave them on run the risk of stigmatization or bullying.

On Aug. 4, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to recommend universal indoor masking for all students, staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. Now we'll have to wait and see if school districts, elected officials, and parents will get on board with masks. ... and we'll be left to count the number of rising COVID-19 cases that occur until they do.

Case in point: Kids in Greater Clark County, Ind., headed back to school on July 28. Masks were not required on school property, although unvaccinated students and teachers were "strongly encouraged" to wear them.8

Over the first 8 days of in-person instruction, schools in Greater Clark County identified 70 cases of COVID-19 in students and quarantined more than 1,100 of the district's 10,300 students. Only the unvaccinated were required to quarantine. The district began requiring masks in all school buildings on Aug. 9.9

The worried mother had one last question for me. "What's the best mask for a child to wear?" For most kids, a simple, well-fitting cloth mask is fine. The best mask is ultimately the mask a child will wear. A toolkit with practical tips for helping children successfully wear a mask is available on the ABC Science Collaborative website.

Kristina A. Bryant, MD, president of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, is a pediatrician at the University of Louisville (Ky.) and Norton Children's Hospital, also in Louisville. She said she had no relevant financial disclosures. Email her at pdnews@mdedge.com.

References

1. American Academy of Pediatrics. "Children and COVID-19: State-level data report."

2. American Academy of Pediatrics. "Children and COVID-19 vaccination trends."

3. Falk A et al. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2021;70:136-40.

4. Hershow RB et al. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2021;70:442-8.

5. Zimmerman KO et al. Pediatrics. 2021 Jul;e2021052686. doi: 10.1542/peds.2021-052686.

6. American Academy of Pediatrics. "American Academy of Pediatrics updates recommendations for opening schools in fall 2021."

7. Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society. "PIDS supports universal masking for students, school staff."

8. Courtney Hayden. WHAS11. "Greater Clark County Schools return to class July 28."

9. Dustin Vogt. WAVE3 News. "Greater Clark Country Schools to require masks amid 70 positive cases."

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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