Doctor explains what schools should consider on mask mandates

The debate over mask mandates inside schools is flaring up again, as some school systems in Virginia say they’re making masks optional going forward, while others say they’re ignoring an executive order from Gov. Glenn Youngkin that purports to lift the mandate.

One health expert told WTOP that school leaders should consider the future of masking, but that in most cases, it’s probably too early to be easing up on the mandates.

“You have to look at this on a case-by-case basis,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Right now, societally, there’s little tolerance for any cases of COVID-19 in a school. Eventually, we’re going to get to a point where this is thought of more like other respiratory viruses like flu and handled in a different manner.”

But for now, because of that low tolerance level, Adalja said, schools should take every action possible to make sure kids can physically stay in classrooms instead of logging in on tablets and laptops again. And that means masks.

But Adalja also said schools need to be looking ahead: “We will need to think about, and should be thinking about, offramps for masking.”

“Especially as you have high levels of vaccination developing in your student body, amongst your faculty, amongst your staff,” he added, “then I think the masks don’t serve the same purpose. The best way to get to a point where we don’t need to rely on masks is to get everyone in a school vaccinated.”

The rate of community spread should also be taken into consideration, Adalja said, and right now, risk tolerance among parents and school staff also factor in any decisions. But he expects that to evolve too — and maybe quickly.

“As people get more risk acclimatized to COVID-19 and each individual case isn’t something that is handled the way it is now, as we get to a more sustainable approach to what’s going to be an endemic disease,” things are likely to change, he said.

But, he said, vaccinations will ultimately have the biggest impact on any calculated change.

“The rate of vaccination in a school district is a measurable metric that should influence mask policy,” he said. “If everyone in your school is vaccinated, the masks are going to serve little purpose because no one is going to be at risk for severe disease. Whereas if you have very low vaccination rates, especially among high risk individuals like teachers, that’s going to play a role as well.”

High vaccination rates are happening “in certain school districts and certain parts of the country, but we aren’t quite there yet,” he said.

More Coronavirus news

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

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John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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