Schools throughout our region have worked tirelessly through these unprecedented times to ensure that students have access to the educational and support services they need to thrive. Parallel to this effort has been the steady battle to limit the spread of COVID-19 within our schools. Educators have been forced to navigate ever-changing guidance at the national and state level, respond to local cases through contact tracing, and plan for future reduction efforts. While no doubt wishing to follow the science and the law, school districts must also answer to the concerns of district families – concerns increasingly founded on misinformation.
Several area school districts have now released their 2021-22 reentry plans, where we can find one common theme: No mandatory masking. Likely referenced was the July 9, 2021 update to the CDC Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools, which recommended masking indoors only for unvaccinated individuals. The CDC guidance was more recently updated on July 27, 2021 to recommend universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.
The CDC’s early decision to relax masking has been roundly criticized by leading physicians and scientists as premature. On July 19, 2021 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) responded with its own guidance, recommending that all students and staff over the age of two use masks indoors, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The AAP recognizes that there is no easy way for schools to selectively enforce masking, or track the vaccination status of students and staff. The AAP also cites the benefit of masking in preventing a variety of airborne diseases that tend to keep students and staff home sick.
So why the back and forth on masking? The answer is Delta. This rapidly spreading COVID-19 variant now accounts for greater than 80% of U.S. cases, and has been blamed for the growing surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations. The CDC began to relax its indoor mask mandate in May 2021, before we had much data on Delta. We now know that individuals infected with Delta produce 1,000 times more viral particles than the original virus, allowing them to spread infection earlier and to more people. It is anticipated that Delta-related infections and deaths will be more pronounced in communities with low rates of vaccination. Currently, only 46.6% of Lycoming County residents have been at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19, compared with a Pennsylvania state average of 65.0%. The COVID-19 vaccine has been demonstrated to be both safe and effective, with 97% of COVID-related hospitalizations, and 99% of deaths occurring in unvaccinated individuals.
In moving forward as a community it is first important to find our common ground. All educators and parents can agree that remote learning during the 2020-21 school year was detrimental to our students’ education, highlighted inequities in our communities, and contributed to a national mental health crisis among children and adolescents. So the question is how do we return to school safely, and stay open?
To those parents demanding a return to in-person instruction without masking, distancing, or vaccination, we ask for a moment of reflection. Medical professionals across the globe have spent countless hours battling this pandemic on the front lines. We have lost over 600,000 Americans to COVID-19, including 3,600 healthcare workers who gave their lives in service. Suggesting that COVID-19 is not a threat, and rejecting the tools necessary to reduce its spread is not only an insult to healthcare workers, but it is also counter-productive to your own desire to keep schools open.
To school board members struggling with how to structure or modify your re-entry plans, we encourage you to be proactive, not reactive. Do not wait for an executive order from the governor. Do not wait for local cases to rise. Modify your re-entry plans now to require masking for all students, staff, and visitors at K-12 schools until we know that we are safe. If vaccinations are not mandated, they should be promoted and made readily available to your school community. Reach out to the physician leaders in your community for updates on case counts and vaccination trends, as well as for evidence-based recommendations to keep schools open and safe. We can only get through this together.
Natasha R. Alligood-Percoco, MD, FACOG, Obstetrician Gynecologist
Ashley N. Pence, DO, FAAP, Pediatrician
Publish date: 8/7/21