As communities and schools drop mask mandates, a question that each of us must answer is “Should I wear a mask in school?” Here is the reasoning and evidence for my decision to continue wearing a mask when I teach.
Although reported COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations were waning in the spring, they are now rising again with the emergence of Omicron and subvariants. Furthermore, we are only beginning to appreciate the severity of post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 (PASC, post-COVID or long-COVID) that can affect many body systems and cause neurological (brain fog, headache, anosmia), respiratory (fatigue), gastrointestinal, metabolic (diabetes), and cardiovascular symptoms (e.g., cerebrovascular disorders, dysrhythmias, inflammatory heart disease; Xie et al. 2022).
Masking helps protect me. Masking reduces virus transmission (Brooks and Butler 2021, Andrejko et al. 2022) and should be used with immunization and other evidence-based interventions such as quarantine and isolation, hygiene and ventilation, etc. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] 2022). However, some SARS-CoV2 variants are adept at overcoming protection by our current vaccines. New variants may continue to become more resistant to vaccines and even more transmissible, and some carriers do not display symptoms. Thus, masking (CDC 2022) will be an important part of my “personal protection plan” for the foreseeable future.
Masking helps protect others. Vaccination increases the likelihood that any infection I might experience may be asymptomatic but still be transmissible (Johansson et al. 2021), possibly causing an acute, serious infection in others. This includes all those in the school and community who have not had an opportunity to be vaccinated, or who choose to delay vaccination. While the susceptibilities of school-age children and adolescents to infection and post-COVID sequelae may be reduced, evidence suggests elevated risk of inflammatory, cardiovascular, and diabetes conditions (Lordan et al. 2021). A recent study of within-school transmission in 61 K–12 school districts having over a million students indicates that universal masking is associated with a 72% reduction in secondary transmission compared with optional masking (Boutzoukas et al. 2022).
Masking can be used to promote learning. As a citizen, scientist, and educator I have an unwavering commitment to the value of evidence for developing claims and guiding reasoning and actions. Consequently, I include discussions of COVID-19 and prevention practices in my teaching and with middle school teachers in our professional development programs (Folk, van Garderen, and Lannin 2018). I hypothesize that students’ social and emotional learning will be strengthened by learning environments with role models/teachers that practice discernment and evidence-based measures for protecting themselves and others.
While some educators claim that masking impedes learning, I have found no evidence to support this for students in middle school or beyond. A recent study (Schlegtendal et al. 2022) of more than 1,000 Swiss secondary school students’ attitudes toward mandatory masking indicates that more than half (57%) thought the practice to be useful in school.
There is a great need for rigorous science to learn about these critically important educational issues for addressing COVID-19 and future pandemics. •
William Folk (email@example.com) is professor of Biochemistry and Affiliate Professor of Public Health and co-directs the Linking Science and Literacy for All Learners Program at the University of Missouri.
Andrejko, K.L., J.M. Pry, J.F. Myers, N. Fukui, J.L. DeGuzman, et al. 2022. Effectiveness of face mask or respirator use in indoor public settings for prevention of SARS-CoV-2 Infection—California, February–December 2021. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) 71 (6): 212–216.
Boutzoukas, A.E., K.O. Zimmerman, M. Inkelas, M.A. Brookhart, D.K. Benjamin, Sr., et al. 2022, May 20. School masking policies and secondary SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Pediatrics 149 (6).
Brooks, J.T., and J.C. Butler. 2021. Effectiveness of mask wearing to control community spread of SARS-CoV-2. JAMA 325 (10): 998–999.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2022, May 27. Operational guidance for K-12 school and early care and education programs to support safe in-person learning. Available at https://bit.ly/3cdLUK2
Folk, W., D. van Garderen, and A. Lannin. 2018. Linking science and literacy for all learners. Available at https://scienceandliteracy.missouri.edu/
Johansson, M.A., T.M. Quandelacy, S. Kada, P.V. Prasad, et al. 2021. SARS-CoV-2 transmission from people without covid-19 symptoms. JAMA Network Open 4 (1).
Lordan, R., S. Prior, E. Hennessy, A. Naik, S. Ghosh, et al. 2021, December. Considerations for the safe operation of schools during the coronavirus pandemic. Frontiers in Public Health 9.
Schlegtendal, A., L. Eitner, M. Falkenstein, A. Hoffmann, T. Lücke, et al. 2022. To mask or not to mask—evaluation of cognitive performance in children wearing face masks during school lessons (MasKids). Children 9 (1): 95.
Xie, Y., E. Xu, B. Bowe, and Z. Al-Aly. 2022. Long-term cardiovascular outcomes of COVID-19. Nature Medicine 28 (3): 583–590.
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