School children mop and test themselves for COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the classroom of the South Boston Catholic Academy in Boston, Massachusetts, Jan. 28, 2021.
Allison Dinner | Reuters
Students should wear masks and practice social distancing in school to ensure safe face-to-face learning this fall, leading U.S. doctors said Tuesday.
Only 30% of 12-17 year olds in America are fully vaccinated, and younger children are unlikely to get the vaccinations until well into the school year. That worried the American Academy of Pediatrics and other top doctors that the Delta variant could break through US schools when kids return to the classroom this fall.
“I think that masking requirements or universal masking should be enforced in school … there are still many very vulnerable people who attend school in person,” Dr. Tina Tan, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University, said on a call Tuesday hosted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
Tan also said that there are many teachers and school staff who are unvaccinated, “and one way to really protect these people from contracting Covid in school would be to enforce a mask mandate until a higher percentage of these people can be vaccinated . “
For children under the age of 12 who are unable to get vaccinated, “you will need to refer to the protection protocols we used prior to the vaccine becoming available until they are eligible for vaccination,” Tan said.
Their call for masks in schools comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidelines for indoor masks for fully vaccinated individuals on Tuesday.
“The CDC recommends that everyone in K to 12 schools indoors wear a mask, including teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on Tuesday.
The CDC relaxed its mask instructions for children at summer camp in May, saying at the time that fully vaccinated children did not need them.
Vaccine eligibility for children under the age of 12 could come by the end of this year or early 2022, vaccine manufacturers predict.
To reduce the spread of Covid this fall, schools could keep desks at least three feet apart and teachers could be assigned smaller class sizes, experts say.
Returning to face-to-face learning is also important for children, “given the significant negative impact of not attending school in person in the past year,” Tan said.
Going to school online has resulted in a lack of motivation, problems in some children, and feelings of isolation in children.
Almost 25% of parents whose children attended virtual school reported deterioration in mental or emotional health, compared with 16% of parents whose children attended school in person, according to a CDC study.
The trend also applies to parents: 54% of parents with children who participated in virtual learning reported emotional distress, compared with 37% of parents with children who attended school in person.
According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, only about 27% of parents of children under the age of 12 report having their child vaccinated. 27% say they will “definitely not” get their child vaccinated.
About half of the parents surveyed in the KFF data say they are concerned about possible side effects of the vaccine.
“We have to do more than just say, ‘Go vaccinate,’ and I don’t know if the incentives have worked that well, but mandates drive people,” says Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the University of Michigan, said on the call.
According to Kaiser’s data, around 61% of parents of children under the age of 18 are against vaccination regulations in schools.
With most school-age children unvaccinated, masking and social distancing remain the best options for face-to-face learning, according to doctors.
“If there is no mask requirement at school or the school has made masks optional, you must send your child to school with a mask on,” said Tan.