Can K-6 Grade Children Safely Return to School Without Masks?

Children ages 5-11 have one of the lowest vaccination rates of any group but are now returning to elementary schools which have no masking requirements and do not require them to stay at home if a classmate is infected.

“2022 could well be the worst year of the pandemic for children,” said Beth Jarosz, Deputy Director, and Program Director of U.S. Programs for Kids Data, at a March 16 news briefing organized by Ethnic Media Services, in collaboration with the California Department of Public Health’s Vaccinate All 58 initiative. The briefing was held during the CDPH’s “Week of Action.”

Alarmingly, more than 30 percent of child Covid deaths across the whole pandemic in California have happened just in the first two and a half months of 2022, noted Jarosz.

Less than one-third of 5 to 11-year-olds in California are fully vaccinated, she said. One of the bright spots in the state is Imperial County, a largely agricultural region where 58 percent of 5 to11-year-olds have been fully vaccinated, said Jarosz. She credited trusted partners and community-based organizations for getting the word out about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine for children.

“A lot of people believe that kids don’t get Covid. But what we find is that they are getting it, but it’s not as severe as in adults. But thousands of children have been hospitalized with Covid, and hundreds of children have died from Covid,” said pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Miller of the Oakland-based East Bay Pediatrics.

Parents who are vaccinated themselves are often reluctant to get their younger children vaccinated.  “They’re not sure that the disease is severe, they’re not sure that they believe that the kids are going to get that sick,” said Miller, drawing upon her own experience with the parents of her patients.

“Some families worried that the vaccine affects fertility in their reproductive years,” or that “corners were cut in the production of this vaccine” which could lead to longer-term consequences.

“There’s no data that shows this at all,” Miller stressed. “In fact, the data suggests the opposite… that this vaccine is safe and effective. It’s been rigorously tested. No corners were cut, and no steps were skipped in the approval of this vaccine.”

Dr. Sohil Sud, who leads the Safe Schools for All initiative of the California Department of Public Health, pointed to downward trends in the numbers of new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. At the peak of Omicron last year, one out of every four tests administered for Covid was positive; that number is down to 1 out of every 100.

Hospitalization and death rates from Covid mirror that trend, said Sud, who is a pediatrician with two children in the 5 to 11 year range . Given the dramatic drops, California has changed its policy guidelines for schools, he said.

As of March 12, students in California are no longer required to wear masks in schools; the state has transitioned from a mask mandate to a “strong recommendation.”

“This means we are still asking students and staff to continue wearing, just as we stated for the general public a few weeks ago. But the state no longer requires that schools track and enforce this,” said Sud, adding that school districts can still choose to make a local masking requirement: the state has released guidelines on how to effectively do so.

The state is also encouraging school districts to use a notification based model for managing students exposed to Covid-19 at school, instead of a quarantine based model. Sud explained that if someone in class has Covid, they should isolate at home. But others exposed to that individual can and should stay in school, wearing a mask, and being on high alert for symptoms.

The state also aims to get more children vaccinated by providing vaccine clinics at school sites and providing test kits for students to take home.

“I think we’re taking steps in the right direction. We’ve come a long way since schools were first shut down two years ago,” said Sud.

Dr. Veronica Kelley, chief of mental health services at the Orange County Health Care Agency, spoke about the profound mental health impacts of Covid isolation on K-6 grade children. “They’re sitting at a kitchen table with Zoom for school, and they aren’t surrounded by their friends. They interact with their friends and other adults differently,” she said.

In 2021, children’s hospitals in California reported a 14 percent increase in mental health emergencies, and a startling 42 percent increase in self-harm, which included suicide attempts.

“Our kids have experienced many losses, including missing the first day of school, missing graduation, participating in sports and ceremonies like Quinceañeras and baptisms,” said Kelley. She noted that an estimated 167,000 children in the state have lost a parent or caregiver to Covid.

Distress in kids can show up as irritability, anger, changes in behavior and sleep patterns. “So, if you see something, let your kid know that you are there, and don’t be afraid to ask a health professional for help. There are a lot of free resources available through every county,” said Kelley.

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