(NEW YORK) — Adding to the many challenges parents faced during the COVD-19 pandemic, vaccines remain unavailable for young children leading to questions about the need for kids to wear masks.
The issue has come to a head as kids start to return to school and even different schools within the same school district may have different mask policies.
On the national level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said immunized adults and teens can go without a mask, including inside schools.
The public health agency has also said that schools can still embrace universal masking if they can’t verify vaccinations or have large numbers of students too young to qualify. Children under the age of 12 are currently not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.
At least eight states, including Arizona, Georgia and Texas, have banned mask mandates in schools.
Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization of nearly 70,000 pediatricians, this week called for schools to enforce universal masking mandates.
“AAP recommends universal masking because a significant portion of the student population is not yet eligible for vaccines, and masking is proven to reduce transmission of the virus and to protect those who are not vaccinated,” the AAP wrote in a statement. “Many schools will not have a system to monitor vaccine status of students, teachers and staff, and some communities overall have low vaccination uptake where the virus may be circulating more prominently.”
Good Morning America spoke with two pediatricians from Columbia University to help clarify for parents all the advice coming in on face masks and kids.
Here are their takeaways for parents.
1. All kids above age 2 should wear face masks at schools:
Both pediatricians, Dr. David Buchholz and Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez, agreed with the AAP’s recommendation that all people above age 2 should wear masks inside schools, regardless of vaccination status.
“It makes it simple and it makes it flawless and protects everybody,” Buchholz said of a universal policy. “Wearing a mask protects yourself and it also protects others. It’s a great benefit.”
Both Buchholz and Bracho-Sanchez pointed out that the AAP’s and CDC’s seemingly different policies can be explained by the focus of their work.
“The CDC is in general making recommendations for the whole country,” said Bracho-Sanchez. “The APA, they’re pediatricians and their first thought is what makes sense for children? They’re looking granularly at kids and what makes sense for them.”
2. Masks matter because kids are at risk for COVID-19:
“Our understanding of COVID-19 in children has changed dramatically [since the start of the pandemic] and it absolutely can be a very serious illness in children,” said Bracho-Sanchez. “Since the start of the pandemic, there have been over 4 million children who have contracted COVID-19 and hundreds who have unfortunately passed away from it and another large amount of children who are suffering long-term COVID-19 symptoms after having had the initial illness.”
COVID-19 cases have nearly tripled in the United States over two weeks, according to The Associated Press. The virus is also on the rise among children, with more than 23,000 new pediatric cases diagnosed in the U.S. last week, twice as many as the end of June, according to the AAP.
The CDC reports that among recent cases of COVID-19, 99.5% of hospitalizations are people who weren’t immunized.
In addition to protecting children from COVID-19, face masks also help prevent the spread of other viruses like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza, noted Buchholz.
3. Masks allow children to learn in person:
After more than one year of learning entirely online for many students, wearing face masks is an easy measure that will allow kids to learn in person, according to Bracho-Sanchez.
“Children have absolutely suffered from being isolated from their peers, from their friends, from other people,” she said. “But that is because they have been away from other people, not because they have been wearing masks.”
“You can be around other people and socializing and wear masks, or not wear masks and potentially get very sick and have to go back to learning online,” added Bracho-Sanchez. “It’s in my mind a no-brainer. I would mask my own child. I would ask the adults around my child to wear masks.”
4. Masks should be used along with other safety practices:
In addition to supporting their kids in wearing face masks, parents should pay attention also to the other safety recommendations that have been in place throughout the pandemic, including hand washing and social distancing, according to both doctors.
They also urge parents to continue to screen themselves and their children for symptoms each morning and to stay home from school and-or work if they are sick.
5. Kids may have bigger feelings around returning to school:
Bracho-Sanchez said that parents will want to listen to their kids in case their possible resistance to or anger over having to wear a mask is about something deeper, like anxiety over returning to school.
“We are very focused on COVID and masking but this back-to-school season is going to be about so much more than COVID-19,” she said. “Some kids are really nervous. Some kids have truly fallen behind. Some kids have not been around people, so at the same time we’re having these conversations, we also have to remember that we have to protect children in so many ways.”
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