6 important things to know about stopping COVID when school starts

'If we can do masking, we can keep kids in schools,' a professor of pediatrics says
By: | August 6, 2021

Masking is still the best way to prevent COVID with younger children ineligible for the vaccine and vaccination rates lagging among older kids, medical experts say.

Yet, in several states, elected officials have ignored the best medical advice and banned school mask mandates despite the spread of the delta variant, Dr. Danny Benjamin, a professor of pediatrics in the Duke University School of Medicine, said Wednesday during a webinar on safely reopening K-12 schools.

“The people whose job it is to keep you alive encourage masking,” he said. “The people who are running for re-election have very mixed opinions about whether there should be masking.”

Here are several other key things to know about blocking COVID when schools reopen for 2021-22:

1. Defending against delta

Wearing masks prevents the spread of the delta variant as effectively as it blocks other forms of COVID. This has been proven by low transmission rates in healthcare settings and in summer school programs where masks are required, Benjamin said.

“The optimal choice here is universal masking in K-12, regardless of what policy decisions might get made or where those decisions are made,” Benjamin said.

Masks also greatly reduce the chances that a vaccinated person will contract the virus at school and bring it home to unvaccinated or medically vulnerable family members, Benjamin says.

2. Modeling masks

Opponents of masking have contended that wearing face coverings can harm students emotionally. But parents and adults who model mask-wearing can foster positive attitudes in children, says Robin Gurwitch, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine

“If parents are saying, ‘This is why we’re doing it, this is for our safety,’ then children are much more comfortable,” says Gurwitch, who is also the director of parent-child interaction therapy at the Center for Child and Family Health. Problems arise when parents are saying, ‘Oh this is horrible, this is going to create breathing problems.’ ”

3. Enforcing face coverings

But a universal mandate won’t block the virus as effectively if educators don’t ensure everyone is wearing their masks properly—that is, covering the nose, mouth and chin, he said.

He compared wearing a mask improperly to getting a prescription for a medication, but not taking it.

“With delta being as contagious as chickenpox, this means that school districts are more likely to have clusters if they have a mask policy but don’t have enforcement and safety plans around it.”

4. Making athletics and extracurriculars safe

While transmission was low in classrooms, schools saw a greater spread in extra-curricular activities—particularly high school sports. Some districts have allowed student-athletes to show proof of vaccination to avoid wearing masking or being tested for COVID several times a week.

For student-athletes who aren’t vaccinated, wearing a mask and regular testing are critical, Benjamin said.

5. Easing student anxiety

Students will likely experience less stress and anxiety when educators are clear about plans for the school year and they create routines on which children can rely, Gurwitch says.

Teachers, for example, can display clear schedules in their classrooms.

“The more teachers can be consistent, the better—we know that helps reduce anxiety, that reduces worries,” she said.

6. Keeping schools open

Data from North Carolina districts showed that masks prevented COVID transmission regardless of how much social distancing schools mandated, said Dr. Kanecia Obie Zimmerman, an associate professor of pediatrics in the Division of Critical Care Medicine at Duke University Medical Center.

That means masks are also the best way to prevent further disruptions to in-person instruction, said Zimmerman, who is co-leading a project funded by the National Institutes of Health studying the safe reopening of schools. 

When all students are wearing masks, the risk of secondary transmission is low and close contacts of someone with COVID don’t have quarantine.

“If we can do masking, we can keep kids in schools,” she said.