Schools

School mask mandates need to end this year, a Harvard public health professor says

“We shouldn’t extend controls beyond what’s necessary, or else we lose the public’s trust.”

Joseph G. Allen says that with the rollout of the vaccine for younger children coming soon, the mandate should be lifted sooner rather than later.

In May, just after the COVID-19 vaccine rollout opened to the general public, many were hopeful that a “normal” summer would allow students to return to a “normal” back-to-school season in September.

Then the delta variant hit.

What was supposed to be a smooth return to school for students quickly became a highly contested issue, with school board meetings across the country becoming heated over whether to implement mask mandates in schools.

In Massachusetts, education officials voted Aug. 24 to implement a mask mandate at least until Oct. 1 for all students and staff K-12. However, the mandate was extended to at least Nov. 1 a few days before the Oct. 1 deadline, due to the increase in cases once more in Massachusetts. 

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Now, schools are now able to apply for an exemption if 80% of their staff and students are vaccinated. Hopkinton High School was the first school to receive this exemption, just last week. 

With the number of COVID-19 cases declining and a potential vaccine rollout in the works for children aged 5 to 11, a professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health says that there should be a firmly set date to lift mask mandates in schools, and it should be by the end of the year at the latest. 

In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Joseph G. Allen, an associate professor and director of the Healthy Buildings program, wrote about the need for schools to lift the mandate after the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available to children aged 5 to 11. Currently, the Biden administration is looking to roll out the vaccine for this age group in November. 

“Why do we need such a quick timeline?” wrote Allen. “Because if we don’t set hard deadlines, it’s easy to see how schools could sleepwalk into indefinite masking for kids for at least this entire school year.”

Younger children are much less likely to experience severe symptoms even if they contract COVID-19. Allen writes that the hospitalization rate for children under 17 in Massachusetts is currently about 7 per 10 million. (“That is not a typo,” Allen wrote.)

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Allen says that with the COVID landscape looking better and the rollout of the vaccine coming soon for younger children, the mandate should be lifted — but there are other mitigation strategies that will help prioritize the health of children at schools, he wrote.

When vaccines become available for this age group, Allen urges schools to host vaccination clinics on site. This way, he says, it will provide families with ample opportunity to get children the vaccine, instead of having to outsource to local pharmacies.

On the topic of vaccines, Allen also urges a vaccine mandate for all adults at schools, similar to those existing in Los Angeles and New York City. This strategy, he says, will increase the rate of vaccines significantly. 

Allen also urged schools to improve ventilation and filtration, something he’s been encouraging since the beginning of the pandemic. 

“This is not hard or expensive,” Allen wrote. 

Schools should also continue and expand the use of rapid antigen testing, which will help keep students from having to quarantine when there is a COVID-19 case in the school, Allen said. School districts in Massachusetts have a ‘Test and Stay’ model that allows students to remain in school even if they were in contact with an individual who tested positive for COVID-19, if they are tested daily for five days following the initial exposure. 

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“We shouldn’t extend controls beyond what’s necessary, or else we lose the public’s trust,” Allen wrote.

Read the full op-ed here.

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