ATLANTA — When schools reopen, the American Academy of Pediatrics wants to see masks on all students over the age of 2, regardless of whether they're vaccinated, a recommendation likely to reignite the mask wars in area school districts.
The updated guidance released Monday by the professional organization for the nation's pediatricians exceeds that of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On July 9, the CDC said students and teachers who are vaccinated against COVID-19 don't need to wear masks in schools in the fall.
But the call by the American Academy of Pediatrics for "a layered approach" to school safety begins with a recommendation that everyone older than age 2 wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. The group also encourages eligible children to be vaccinated against COVID and reiterates the CDC recommendations around building ventilation, testing, quarantining and cleaning and disinfection.
"We need to prioritize getting children back into schools alongside their friends and their teachers — and we all play a role in making sure it happens safely," said Dr. Sonja O'Leary, chair of the AAP Council on School Health, in a statement. "The pandemic has taken a heartbreaking toll on children, and it's not just their education that has suffered but their mental, emotional and physical health. Combining layers of protection that include vaccinations, masking and clean hands hygiene will make in-person learning safe and possible for everyone."
"There are many children and others who cannot be vaccinated," said Dr. Sara Bode, chair-elect of the AAP Council on School Health Executive Committee. "This is why it's important to use every tool in our toolkit to safeguard children from COVID-19. Universal masking is one of those tools and has been proven effective in protecting people against other respiratory diseases, as well. It's also the most effective strategy to create consistent messages and expectations among students without the added burden of needing to monitor everyone's vaccination status."
DeKalb and Clayton Schools will require masks for students and staff, regardless of vaccination status. Atlanta Public Schools is still deciding. Fulton, Gwinnett, Marietta and Cobb have made masks optional for students and staff in the fall, leading to some worried parents.
The American Academy of Pediatrics-Georgia Chapter intends to follow up on the national organization's actions with a letter urging Georgia school superintendents to heed the mask recommendation.
That may not be an easy sell.
A Fulton parent who is a nurse sent an email Monday to Superintendent Mike Looney urging the district to require masks. The parent told Looney: "I have never been more concerned for my child's safety than I am right now. While I know this is very draining and causes issues for many parents, their safety should be your top priority."
The parent cited the CDC guidance on masks for unvaccinated students, which prompted a surprising response from Looney: "While I appreciate the CDC's recommendations, the truth is their credibility has been tainted during this past year and I no longer feel comfortable following all of their guidance, but now factor in our local data and experiences in the decision-making process."
I reached out to Fulton Schools about the superintendent's criticism of the CDC and was told Looney may have additional comment tomorrow.
In the meantime, Fulton spokesman Brian Noyes said, "I can definitively say we do still factor in CDC recommendations. However, as Looney indicated in his email, which he stands behind, he is leaning on local data, FCBOH and experience as he makes decisions."
The AAP recommends universal masking in school for these reasons:
— A significant portion of the student population is not eligible for vaccination
— Protection of unvaccinated students from COVID-19 and to reduce transmission
— A lack of a system to monitor vaccine status among students, teachers and staff
— Potential difficulty in monitoring or enforcing mask policies for those who are not vaccinated; in the absence of schools being able to conduct this monitoring, universal masking is the best and most effective strategy to create consistent messages, expectations, enforcement, and compliance without the added burden of needing to monitor vaccination status
— Possibility of low vaccination uptake within the surrounding school community
— Continued concerns for variants that are more easily spread among children, adolescents, and adults
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