CDC’s Recommendation That Staff And Students Wear Masks In K-12 Schools Is Spot On

A lot has already been said about yesterday’s CDC recommendation for many fully vaccinated people to wear masks again. But, as David Leonhardt noted in the New York Times, the advice is somewhat confusing. Moreover, masks are a minor weapon in the fight against Covid-19. Vaccines are the real artillery. Our top priority should be to vaccinate the entire eligible population.

What has been less noted is the parallel guidance that all staff, teachers, students, and visitors wear a mask in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status or the amount of transmission in the local area.

Why? For other respiratory illnesses, like flu, schools are often an amplifier of transmission. And, because there is not yet a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine for children under 12, schools will contain high concentrations of unvaccinated people.

Transmission does occur in schools. Fifty percent of cases in nine clusters of Covid-19 in Georgia last winter occurred at school. About half of these transmissions were from teachers to students. Even vaccinated adults may be infected and transmit SARS-CoV-2, although relatively rarely compared with someone who is not vaccinated. What’s more, a vaccinated person is less likely to be symptomatic and therefore may be more likely to go unnoticed.

In the Georgia school study, inadequate mask use and insufficient social distancing were identified as contributing factors. So, masks help. 

Back in the spring of 2020, I advocated for closing schools. That was at a time when we knew very little about Covid-19. We know a lot more now. Particularly, we know that masks are effective at preventing transmission. School closures come at tremendous personal and social costs. By adopting universal masking in schools — a setting with a high concentration of susceptible and vulnerable people — we will be reducing the chance that schools will need to close again during the 2021-2022 school year. Wearing face masks is an investment in our children; and they are essential for getting our society back on track educationally, economically, and medically.

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