The era of masked students and teachers may be coming to an end.
Dr. Joseph G. Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, thinks that mask use can be safely phased out entirely over the next few weeks, even in schools.
“The disease dynamics in the U.S. are changing rapidly, and we have to adjust our protocols accordingly,” says Allen, who is chair of The Lancet’s Covid-19 Commission Task Force on Safe Work, Safe Schools, and Safe Travel, and who has been a proponent of masks to this point in the pandemic. “The playbook that worked for the past year needs to evolve and evolve in a good way thanks to the vaccines.”
Masks Are Still Required in Schools. Should They Be?
“I agree with the CDC's guidance on masking that it depends on vaccination status,” Allen says. “If you're vaccinated, you're protected and you're protected from infecting others, so you don't need to mask. That said, there are places that may still require masks -- different parts of the country have higher levels than elsewhere.”
Currently, schools are among the settings in which the CDC still recommends universal masking, but Allen does not believe that will be necessary for much longer. His suggestion: “We wait a few more weeks before we fully remove indoor mask mandates for everybody.”
But Aren’t Masks Needed in Schools Since Kids Can’t Get Vaccinated?
Not necessarily. “If you're vaccinated, the risks are low. So feel confident not wearing a mask. If you're unvaccinated, you should absolutely still want to mask,” Allen says.
Even without being vaccinated, students appear less likely to spread the virus now than in the recent past. “Children are lower risk in general, and because we have such a high percentage of adults who have received one vaccine already, the likelihood of kids transmitting to adults is also decreasing rapidly,” Allen says.
Recently, the CDC released a new study that suggests schools where teachers and other staff members were required to wear masks had lower infection rates. But the data for that story was gathered between November and December when virus spread and vaccination levels were vastly different.
“What we see in the data from other countries is that once you start hitting these vaccination rates in adults, the risk drops for everybody, including kids who aren't vaccinated and immune-compromised people, and that's because the level of virus circulating is much lower,” Allen says.
What About Schools and Masking Next Fall?
“I don't think kids need to be masked next fall,” Allen says. “I'll add this caveat: There are no absolutes in the middle of a pandemic. So we should be vigilant, monitor the changing science and changing disease dynamics. And if things turn for the worse, we should be prepared to increase the controls.”
However, as things stand now, there is strong optimism. “What we're seeing in the United States, what we've seen in other countries who have high levels of vaccination plus high levels of people who were unfortunately naturally infected, is that cases, hospitalizations, and deaths all plummet, and we expect that to continue.”
I Don’t Need a Mask at My School. Can I Get Rid of It?
Not just yet, Allen advises. Even if you’re vaccinated and comfortable without a mask, it’s important to remember not everyone else is. “I don't wear a mask outdoors, but I keep it with me,” Allen says. “If I see someone walking toward me who has a mask on, I put it up as a courtesy, because I don't know their comfort level. I think it's just a sign of respect.”
Allen wears his mask indoors if that’s the rule for the location but doesn’t wear it if he’s around other vaccinated people inside. But he never argues with the mask policies of local businesses. “I keep it with me and I have no problem if the local store still requires a mask. It's just not a big burden to wear a mask if asked,” he says.