Health experts reinforce importance of masks for upcoming school year

Posted August 4, 2021 1:13 p.m. EDT
Updated August 4, 2021 1:33 p.m. EDT

Traditional calendar schools are set to begin in a little more than two weeks.

The mask debate in schools, as well as the challenges of schools reopening, were the focus of a discussion among Duke University experts on Wednesday.

Parents and students, not to mention teachers, are facing a school year of uncertainties. The goal for all involved is to make the school year a safe one for everyone.

The big debate right now surrounds masks for students in kindergarten through twelfth grade.

Lee, Nash and Wake County schools are some of the schools that will require masks for the upcoming school year, while Johnston County Public Schools will allow masks to be optional.

For health experts at Duke, the prevailing consensus is, universal masking is highly recommended.

"From a medicine perspective -- masking clearly works. It prevents transmission in schools and, fundamentally, the challenges for schools right now is the majority of the people in their community do not have access to a vaccine," said Dr. Danny Benjamin, a Duke professor of pediatrics.

The other area in which universal masking works, according to the Duke experts, is social distancing.

Last spring, members of the ABC Collaborative collected data from 100 school districts throughout North Carolina on social distancing efforts. Dr. Kanecia Zimmerman, a Duke professor of pediatrics, said no difference was seen in regard to how much social distancing was practiced, if the school district strictly adhered to masks.

"In this setting, we know that masking is one of the most important things, particularly if you want to get all the kids back into school," said Zimmerman.

"The prevention of transmission all centers around masking," added Benjamin.

Benjamin said that the Delta variant will result in more quarantine and faster school closures as a result of multiple clusters.

"The virus is not more transmissible as it relates to evading masking," he said. "If that were the case, we would be seeing much more transmission in the healthcare setting."

Experts also shared other ways that students and staff could safely return to in-person instruction for the upcoming school year, along with masking up.

"Having transparency, having reporting data and having a third-party analyze this data are really also very important," said Zimmerman.

Experts also recommended parents address masks with the students and discuss why a student is wearing it.

"Give them some sense of control over this, so that that they feel like not only are they keeping themselves safe but their friends, their family, their teachers and other people in the environment," said Dr. Robin Gurwitch, a professor of pediatrics at Duke.

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