Schools That Were Reluctant to Mandate Mask Use Are Changing Their Guidelines

Boys wearing masks give each other elbow bump

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Key Takeaways

  • Many school districts are changing requirements rapidly to accommodate virus levels in their area.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages universal masking for K-12 students as well as staff.
  • Administrators and parents should try to build in mask-free time to allow older children social opportunities outside to relieve mental stress.

As the Kansas heat surged in late July, a group of children gathered at Clear Creek Elementary School in Shawnee, Kansas. Like others around the country, the Kansas City suburb was trying to get back to the business of normal life. Children played games, ate snacks, and had fun—until a COVID-19 outbreak made headlines and ended the camp early.

Eleven of the 24 children were ultimately diagnosed with COVID-19 in the camp, and many believe it was because of a relaxation of mask requirements. The Johnson County Parks and Recreation Department, which administered the camp, encouraged but didn't require mask use. Few children wore them.

Parents across the country are worried about relaxed mask guidelines as children head back to school. As the Delta variant surges in areas with low vaccination rates, school authorities are changing their guidelines to require face masks for K-12 students.

Changing Requirements

David Smith, chief communications officer for the Shawnee Mission School District, tells Verywell that keeping kids in school full time is their ultimate goal. The school district initially only required unvaccinated children over the age of 12 to wear mask, but the mandate now applies to all kindergarten through 12th grade students.

"We initially went into it with the thought that folks have the option to get vaccinated, and if they are vaccinated, they will generally be okay," Smith tells Verywell. "But it's not fair to punish the ones that have done everything they needed to do to be safe and have to continue to wear masks."

Smith says that in his district, teachers were some of the biggest proponents of forgoing a mask mandate.

"It changes your focus as a teacher. You don't become a teacher to be the mask police," Smith says. "Plus, so much of the interpersonal connection is in that face-to-face time, being able to read expressions and know whether students are struggling."

Although masks do present certain barriers, Smith's school district will go forward with the mandate regardless of vaccination status. In the latest guidance, students at the secondary level are also encouraged to socially distance by at least three feet. Elementary-aged children will be kept in smaller cohorts as much as possible.

Additionally, the school district is sponsoring vaccine clinics and encouraging all eligible students and staff to get the shot as soon as possible.

Masking Is the Most Reliable Course

Since it is hard to monitor individual vaccination status within the classroom, the American Academy of Pediatrics in July recommended universal mask use in school.

Nathaniel Beers, MD, president of the HSC Health Care System in Washington, DC, says that even cloth masks can help mitigate transmission, especially with social distancing and enhanced hygiene measures.

"We want to create as many different levels of protection as we can," Beers tells Verywell. "Masking is one component, in addition to as much physical distance as possible, especially at times when you can't mask, such as lunch."

Mask success is based more on how reliably children will wear them rather than the type of the mask, Beers says. While there are KN95 masks available in children's sizes, he says that any double-layer mask makes a difference. The more comfortable the mask, the higher the chances that children will keep them on.

Beers says that upgraded ventilation systems are also an important component. Many schools are investing additional government funds into installing more extensive ventilation systems. Keeping children in smaller groups that stay together, commonly known as "cohorts," is another good way to minimize spread.

While older children can get vaccinated, the levels of success at vaccination from ages 12 to 18 vary greatly by region.

Although the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention still doesn't require masks in outdoor situations, Beers says schools should think carefully about mass gatherings such as football games and other sporting events.

Build in Mask-Free Time For Mental Health

Although masks may keep children safe from the virus, Beers says that educators should remain sensitive to the challenges they present, especially in middle and high school.

"The American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes that adults need to use judgment to acknowledge that kids may struggle at various ages," Beers says. "It may not be the youngest kids, but the adolescents. Make sure you're building in time for breaks and get kids outside, so they have an opportunity to take a break and create social opportunities."

"It's important to acknowledge the emotional strain that this pandemic has brought on to students. We need to support their overall emotional and behavioral health needs as well, whether they are masked or not." Beers says.

What This Means For You

Although we all enjoyed a comparatively stress-free summer, additional caution is needed, especially for children. Encourage masks in your schools and vaccination whenever possible. For parents of older children, try to create social opportunities outdoors where children can safely mingle mask-free.

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.

By Rachel Murphy
Rachel Murphy is a Kansas City, MO, journalist with more than 10 years of experience.