The Pulse

Time to mandate masks in schools

By: - July 30, 2021 6:32 am

Let’s establish an important fact up front: masks are one of the most important ways to contain the spread of COVID-19.

  • A review of 19 randomized controlled trials found that universal mask wearing is important for preventing COVID, where transmission may occur before a person becomes symptomatic.
  • Countries that introduced mandated masking within 30 days of the first case had dramatically fewer COVID cases than those that delayed beyond 100 days.
  • States requiring mask-wearing in public are estimated to have averted between 230,000-450,000 cases of COVID between April and May 2020.
  • Universal mask wearing can build solidarity in our communities and combat fear and stigma that our loved ones and neighbors may face around wearing a mask.

In North Carolina, only about one-quarter of teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 have received both shots. Students under 12 are still ineligible for vaccines.

While children are less likely than adults to die of COVID, they can catch and spread the disease, endangering staff and families. 40 percent of North Carolina adults remain unvaccinated and thousands more are immunocompromised. Transmission of the virus propagates variants that will prolong the pandemic.

In addition to spreading the disease, children are not invulnerable to complications. At least 337 children have died from COVID, including an eight-year-old girl from Durham. At least 4,196 children have developed Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). MIS-C can lead to life-threatening problems with the heart and other organs in the body and has led to at least 37 deaths. Even if the risks are small, no child deserves to face lethal risks from preventable disease.

Given the above, the Governor must work with the Council of State to require masks in our schools for all students and staff. With the delta variant causing new cases to rise at alarming rates, delegating this decision to the state’s 115 school boards and the state’s 200 charter schools will be disastrous. Simply encouraging school leaders to do the right thing is not enough.

On Thursday, the Governor indicated he recommends that schools require masks, but he will not exercise his authority to mandate their use. As a result, too many school boards controlled by conservatives, will largely eschew masks, exacerbating spread in their communities. Already, Beaufort County, Cabarrus County, Caldwell County, Carteret County, Catawba County, Clay County, Cleveland County, Gaston County, Harnett County, Haywood County, Iredell-Statesville, Mooresville, Lincoln County, Madison County, Pender County, Randolph County, Rowan-Salisbury, Sampson County, Stokes County, Union County, and Watauga County have voted to make masks optional in their schools. Many more are sure to follow.

In addition to being bad science, the Governor’s most recent order puts incredible pressure on boards wanting to maintain a mask mandate.

School boards have faced an incredibly difficult and acrimonious year. Boards faced a vocal, emotional, and sometimes threatening, response from families seeking a return to in-person learning before safety measures were in place. That battle was similarly the product of ambiguous state guidelines that left the decision on returning to in-person learning to the subjective whims of school boards.

North Carolina needs Governor Cooper to lead on this issue, as he often has throughout this pandemic, to avoid a repeat of these destructive protests. While these groups are small (and almost entirely white), they are organized and highly motivated. Such groups can have tremendous impact in low-turnout elections like those for local school board. It would not be surprising to see leadership changes among the many school boards that are working to keep their communities safe.

It is important to remember, though, that these groups – as vocal as they are – remain a substantial minority. Two thirds of parents say that masks need to be required in schools for them to feel safe. Support for mask mandates is highest among Black, Hispanic, and Asian families (86, 78, and 89 percent, respectively). Critically, the numbers supporting mask mandates are even higher (79 percent) among the subset of parents who are unsure whether they will return their children to in-person schooling in the fall.

Policymakers should listen to the majority of parents who think masks should be required. For most students, in-person learning is far superior to remote learning, and a mask mandate is vital to getting more students into in-person settings. Data indicates that younger students, students from families with low incomes, and students of color have been the most harmed (as narrowly measured by progress on standardized tests) by the pandemic-related challenges from the prior school year. We need students to be in the classroom where they can develop relationships with educators and fellow students. But to get them there, we need our schools to be safe. We must continue to improve vaccination rates and school ventilation while also requiring students and employees to wear masks.

Lax mask policies are likely to increase the amount of time students spend learning remotely. In addition to dissuading wary families from returning to school, a lack of masks means more viral spread, more days out sick, and more days isolating due to contact with an infected classmate. We can already see this in England where, as of July 15, nearly one in five secondary school students were missing due to a COVID-related absence.

Of course, there is still time to do the smart thing: require masks in schools. Encouragement isn’t enough. As COVID hospitalizations in North Carolina have once again shot above the 1,000 mark and most counties are experiencing substantial-to-high transmission, the right thing to do is for the Governor to require masks in our schools.

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Kris Nordstrom
Kris Nordstrom

Kris Nordstrom is a Senior Policy Analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center's Education & Law Project. He previously spent nine years with the North Carolina General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division.