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Mandatory Back-To-School Masking—The Experts Weigh In

Little girl wearing a mask at her desk in school

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Key Takeaways

  • Most students are still ineligible for COVID-19 vaccination
  • Masks may help keep kids physically present in school by reducing illness
  • Masks for all promote equity and may prevent bullying

In a controversial move, the California State Government announced that masks will be mandatory in the new school year, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status. This move sparked confusion and even outrage in some parents. After all, the CDC has previously advised that when fully vaccinated, masking is not necessary for most activities.

Within days of California’s announcement, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) backed up the decision with similar recommendations for all schools. They recommend that all students (over the age of two years) and all staff mask at school, regardless of vaccination status.

As of July 28th, 2021 the CDC is moving away from its spring mask guidance, recommending that everyone, even vaccinated individuals, wear masks indoors in public spaces in places where cases of the COVID-19 Delta variant are surging. Students, educators, and anyone working on school grounds are included in these guidelines but it's up to the states in these regions to determine whether or not they'll make masks mandatory.

Here we'll discuss how mandatory masking may benefit your child from a medical, educational, and psychological perspective.

Medical Perspective: Masks Offer Protection

The AAP recommends masking at school to protect the unvaccinated. Although some may argue that those who are vaccinated should be allowed to go mask-free, the truth is that there is currently no system in place for schools to monitor and maintain up-to-date vaccination records of all staff and students. Therefore, mandatory mask wearing for all is the safest option.

Even if schools could track vaccination status accurately, the benefits of masking go beyond COVID-19. Sharon Nachman, MD, director of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital says, “Masking not only prevents COVID, but has the added benefit of preventing flu and pretty much all of the other respiratory viruses we see every year.” She reports that hospital admission for viral and respiratory illnesses in kids has been significantly reduced with masking, hand washing, and social distancing measures in place.

By reducing overall illness in students and staff, the AAP hopes to see more kids return to in-person learning and be able to stay there.

Most Kids Are Not Yet Eligible for Vaccination

Kids under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for a vaccination against COVID-19. So, if everyone masks, it protects those kids who are not vaccinated. Some kids over the age of 12 will either not yet have received a vaccination or may be ineligible for vaccination. It is important that these kids are protected and masking can help that.

“While vaccines are not available, parents prefer that kids stay healthy and stay in school,” explains Dr. Nachman. “Moving to use masks while in school may be comforting, meaning that the likelihood that their child will stay well is very high.”

Sharon Nachman, MD

When I think about risk to my children and how I, as a parent, can prevent them from getting sick—wearing a mask is such a reasonable thing to do.

— Sharon Nachman, MD

Dr. Nachman suggests that with vaccinations not yet available to many children, and so many decisions still out of our control, parents can only do what they can do. “I think we don’t have a perfect answer as to when and whom to mask,” she says. “But when I think about risk to my children and how I, as a parent, can prevent them from getting sick—wearing a mask is such a reasonable thing to do.”

Impact of New Strains of COVID-19 

As new strains of COVID-19 emerge, kids continue to be at risk. By masking, we can help protect kids and the family members they go home to, against these more contagious variants.

Dr. Nachman reminds parents that just because kids are less likely to transmit the virus, doesn’t mean that we can let our guard down. “With an infection like COVID, and a variant like Delta, less likely is still not good enough,” explains Dr. Nachman. She notes that unvaccinated children “are very likely, if they are exposed to the Delta variant, to get infected.”

Educational and Psychological Perspective

Impact of Masks on Learning

Masks can inhibit learning for some children with hearing difficulties. They can also impact young children who require visualization of the mouth and face to learn about language and emotion. For most other children, masks shouldn’t really impact their learning or focus in the classroom. Even children who experience autism or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder are generally able to cope with masking at school.

Terrell Strayhorn, PhD, specializes in equity in the education system. He reports that masks actually help kids concentrate better in the current pandemic because they can provide a sense of safety.

“Worrying about our basic needs (e.g., safety, security, food) distracts our higher-order attention…it’s not until basic needs are fulfilled that we are free to concentrate on other things like homework, lectures, experiments, and life goals,” he explains. “Masks satisfy that basic need for us—almost subconsciously—and will likely 'free up' some bandwidth for students in school.”

What This Means For You

In this rapidly evolving situation, recommendations may change again before school returns. It is important that you check with your local state authority and school about masking recommendations for your child's return to school.

Masking for All Reduces Bullying Risk

If schools allow fully vaccinated children and staff to go mask-free, it creates a potential for the mistreatment of the unvaccinated.

“We know that even a single instance of social difference—wearing glasses amongst those without, being tall amongst shorter, or, yes, wearing a mask amongst those free to NOT wear masks due to vaccination—places a person at 3 or 4 times the risk of being singled out, socially alienated, bullied, or threatened with physical or psychological harm,” explains Strayhorn.  

Terrell Strayhorn, PhD

Mandatory masks, in my opinion, will show to be an ‘equalizer’ of sorts that will prevent in-group/out-group behavior on the basis of vaccination status.

— Terrell Strayhorn, PhD

For many children, vaccination is not an option due to parental choice, medical history, or the unavailability of an age-appropriate vaccine. To protect themselves from bullying, unvaccinated students may avoid wearing a mask. Alternatively, students who feel safer wearing a mask, despite being fully vaccinated, may be treated as unvaccinated by their peers.

“Mandatory masks, in my opinion, will show to be an ‘equalizer’ of sorts that will prevent in-group/out-group behavior on the basis of vaccination status,” says Strayhorn.

Masking for All Promotes Equity

By requesting all people wear masks, schools offer the safety of equity among all students and staff regardless of vaccination status. The AAP includes this equity in its recommendations, suggesting everyone should be following the same set of rules.

Masking for all will help bring more children back to in-person learning, providing equal access to resources that schools offer a child for growth, learning, and development.

When implementing masking policies, Strayhorn says of schools, “We’ll need to be equity-minded in our application to avoid over penalizing some students (e.g., Blacks, Asians, low-income) who are judged suspiciously as ‘threats’ for infection spread, while privileging others (e.g., Whites, wealthy) who are missed in such scenarios.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Article Sources
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  1. Associated Press. California’s mask rule for schools prompts controversy. Published July 12, 2021.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When you’ve been fully vaccinated: how to protect yourself and others. Updated July 27, 2021.

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. COVID-19 guidance for safe schools. Updated July 18, 2021.

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  5. University of Virginia, EdPolicyWorks. Teaching young children during COVID-19: lessons from early educators in Virginia. Updated June 14, 2021.

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