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Unvaccinated Students Should Keep Masking Inside Schools, Even As Districts Lift Mandates

Students wearing masks participate in an art project.
Rebekah Hange
Courtesy Lee's Summit R-7 School District
The Lee's Summit R-7 School District sent an email to parents on Friday saying masks would no longer be required in classrooms. The CDC still recommends unvaccinated people, including children between the ages of 2-12, wear masks.

The CDC says masking should continue in schools through the end of the term. But school districts like Lee's Summit and Blue Springs have already ended their mask mandates, prompting some parents to pull their kids from class.

Communities are divided about whether masking should continue in schools, but pediatric infectious disease experts say kids should continue wearing masks until more vaccines can be administered.

Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco, says districts should maintain their mask policies with just weeks left in the school year.

“We’re only like four weeks past when the vaccine got opened up for all Americans,” Gandhi told KCUR. “I just think it’s really premature to be doing this on May 18.”

Here’s what happened: Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vaccinated Americans didn’t need to mask outdoors or in uncrowded indoor spaces. However, on Sunday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said masking should continue in schools because children younger than 12 aren’t eligible to be vaccinated yet and most teenagers haven’t received both doses.

But before Walensky clarified the CDC’s position, the Lee’s Summit and Blue Springs school districts said students and teachers no longer needed to wear masks in school.

Courtney Ng, the parent of two Lee’s Summit students, was shocked when she got the email on Friday afternoon.

“Why on earth was this done now instead of just letting the kids finish out the school year with the mask mandate still in place? Why was the decision to do this done so quickly?” Ng asked.

Ng’s 16-year-old son, Jack, is scheduled to receive his second COVID-19 vaccine this week. But Ng’s daughter, 10-year-old Emery, can’t get vaccinated yet. So on Monday, Ng asked the principal at her daughter’s school if students were still masking. Only 14% were, the principal said.

“So I emailed the principal late last night and told her that Monday was our daughter’s last day of school. We talked to our daughter about it, and she did not go to school today, and she will not be back for the remainder of the school year unless a mask order is put back into place,” Ng said.

In an email, a spokeswoman for the Lee’s Summit school district declined to comment on the district’s mask policy. Ng and other parents who want the mask mandate restored plan to protest outside the Stansberry Leadership Center on Thursday evening.

Meanwhile, about 30 people who oppose the Shawnee Mission School District’s policy requiring masks protested outside the Center for Academic Achievement on Monday. They want the district to end masking in schools immediately, but Shawnee Mission Superintendent Mike Fulton said masks will be required through the end of this school year.

“We will continue to follow those guidelines,” Fulton said. “We hope for that day — and it will come — when those mitigation measures give way to what we know to be normalcy.”

Gandhi, the infectious disease doctor, said that could easily happen before the next school year starts in the fall, as more Americans get vaccinated and community spread slows. But she said health departments need clear metrics based on local vaccination rates and hospitalizations.

“That’s what led to so much consternation about the CDC guidance with masks because when you talk about removing masks, unless you have come up with clean metrics, everyone gets confused,” Gandhi said.

Less than 40% of Kansans and Missourians have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, a rate that isn’t likely to protect unvaccinated people who’ve stopped masking against CDC guidelines. Remember, the CDC says unvaccinated people — including kids ages 2-12 — should continue to mask in public.

For now, Gandhi recommends parents still send their children to school wearing masks, even if their classmates have stopped. Per the CDC, masks are most effective when everyone wears one, but Gandhi said there are still benefits to wearing one.

“Masks protect you. So if you feel insecure, if you feel vulnerable, your mask protects you,” she said. “Do what is comfortable for your family.”

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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