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Opinion | To keep kids in the classroom, Michigan schools must mask up

As pediatricians in Michigan, our primary goal is to keep children healthy. We understand that students do better when they are in the classroom. However, Michigan’s children will not do better if the classroom is a safety hazard. With the Delta variant on the rise, we must deploy every means of protection we can to keep Michigan’s children safe.

Sharon Swindell
Dr. Sharon Swindell is past president of the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. (Courtesy photo)

Masking is a temporary, but crucial, piece of the layered protections needed to keep students safe: vaccination for those eligible, hand hygiene, social distancing, smaller classroom cohorts when possible, optimal ventilation, and other measures play a role as well.

The Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics urges all of our schools to require universal masking for faculty, staff, and students aged 2 and older. This small but significant measure will ensure our students can stay in school without the dangerous interruption of COVID outbreaks sending them into quarantine.

The unforeseen explosion of the Delta variant has alarmed those of us in the pediatric community. However, we know masking is effective in preventing disease transmission in schools. This is an important intervention as the majority of school-age children – those under age 12 – are not yet eligible for vaccination. Even among vaccine-eligible teens, the rate of vaccination remains well below levels providing community immunity, putting at risk children with immune deficiencies who cannot be vaccinated at all.

While, thankfully, children have continued to have lower COVID hospitalization rates and deaths compared to adults, thousands of children in the U.S. have been hospitalized and hundreds have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. These children – the most vulnerable among us – cannot be neglected.

In addition to COVID-19-related disease in youth, the pandemic has led to rises in anxiety and depression, eating disorders, family stress, daily routine disruption, and educational losses with widening of preexisting disparities. Children with disabilities and special learning needs have been disproportionately affected by the loss of in-person learning yet are particularly vulnerable without all safety measures in place. It is estimated that as many as 40,000 U.S. children have lost a parent from COVID-19, adding to trauma and grief.

It is vital we implement a layered protection approach – including masks – to keep children in the classroom.

It is time to prioritize the needs of youth. These priorities are safety and getting back to in-person learning; we can have both protections against COVID and the benefits of in-person learning if we are willing to take common sense measures in Michigan’s schools.

Of course, masking is a temporary measure: as a greater proportion of the population becomes vaccinated, there will be less opportunity for variants to develop and greater opportunity to reach community immunity and low transmission. Changing disease conditions will prompt reevaluation and there will be a time when guidelines can be modified. The good news is that kids have shown an impressive ability to adapt to mask wearing.

We all want this pandemic to be over. We all agree children should be back in school as soon as possible. But we cannot forget about the unprotected population in which vaccination is not yet an option – children. Science and data tell us that wearing masks in settings such as schools is effective in decreasing transmission and outbreaks.

With Delta on the rise and children at risk, we implore schools to put in place the universal masking recommendations from the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics as they prepare for students and much-needed in-person learning.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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