Pediatric experts: Masks are key to preventing COVID-19 infections at school

Pediatric experts say there's no argument masks are key in reducing the spread of COVID-19, even as lawyers debate whether Gov. J.B. Pritzker's administration is authorized to mandate face coverings in schools.

“Masks help protect the wearer and those around them, especially when there's high community transmissions such as right now,” said Dr. Taylor A. Heald-Sargent, an infectious disease specialist at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital.

It's all part of a multilayered strategy including vaccinations, masking, proper airflow and social distancing, Heald-Sargent explained.

“Taking away any one of those tools is going to leave schools and children open to more infections,” she said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and U.S. Centers for Disease Control both recommend universal masking for all students, staff and visitors at elementary, middle and high schools.

It's also required by the state, but Pritzker's mask mandate at schools is temporarily suspended at districts named in an ongoing lawsuit. Parents who oppose mandates say masks pose challenges for students and should be optional.

Illinois is climbing out of a COVID-19 surge caused by the highly infectious omicron variant. But the seven-day new case average of 6,141 Wednesday is still much higher than levels in the hundreds last summer, and every county in Illinois is recording high transmission rates of COVID-19, according to state data.

“In this current situation, now is not the time to be taking off masks,” Heald-Sargent said.

Dr. Michael Bauer, a pediatrician and medical director at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, also thinks that “masks are certainly a key part of the strategy when the (COVID-19) levels are what they are in helping to prevent transmission.

“There's still a lot of COVID right now. My hope is that people will hang in there, keep doing what we've been doing, then re-evaluate at spring break time — if things continue heading in the right direction. I think the biggest mistake we can make is letting up on the gas too soon,” Bauer said.

Masking at schools is also important because children can transmit the virus to classmates or parents and grandparents, experts said.

“You can never tell anyone's medical history just by looking at them,” Heald-Sargent said. “You don't know if another child in the class might have had a transplant and be on immunosuppressive medication, They might be going home to a mom who's having chemotherapy for breast cancer. You just don't know.

“And that's why you can't be shortsighted and look at what you would prefer; you need to think about it as a whole community.”

A recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that “increases in pediatric COVID-19 case rates during the start of the 2021—22 school year were smaller in U.S. counties with school mask requirements than in those without school mask requirements.”

Meanwhile, in a “Myth Busters” question-and-answer website post, the AAP reports that masks are safe and do not block oxygen, interfere with lung development or trap carbon dioxide.

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