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Earlier this summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 were safe to go without masks. This included those who had received two doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Vaccines are available for everyone 12 years and older — which includes junior and high school students. However, elementary school children won’t likely be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine until later this fall. So, do we allow kids to go to school without masks? That depends on who you talk to and the latest evidence about new coronavirus variants.

Recently, a mutation of the original coronavirus, called the Delta variant, has spread worldwide. Experts believe that the Delta variant is much more contagious than previous mutations, although they are unsure if it causes a more severe disease than the other coronaviruses. Because it is so highly transmissible, we have seen a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in Idaho (and the rest of the world) in the last month.

Since children under 12 years are not yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, they can still get the virus, possibly get sick from the virus, and more importantly, pass it on to vulnerable populations. These include older adults, immune-compromised persons, or folks with underlying medical conditions. There have also been some cases of fully vaccinated people contracting COVID-19 from the Delta variant, which was not apparent with the previous mutations.

Back to the question: Should children wear masks at school this fall? The CDC published a statement on July 27 that because of the highly contagious nature of the Delta variant, people in areas of substantial or high transmission areas should wear a mask when indoors in public. This recommendation includes people who are fully vaccinated (and certainly those not vaccinated).

Ada and Canyon counties are currently at a Substantial level of Community Transmission, partly due to the low level of vaccination rates (which allows more people to get and pass on any of the coronavirus mutations easily). That means that even if kids are vaccinated, all children should wear masks in school this fall to protect themselves, their teachers, and their families. If COVID-19 spreads in schools this fall, there’s a good chance many students and teachers will be out of the classroom due to illness or quarantine. The result could be a return to online school for all, leading to further social, educational and psychological setbacks in our children.

Most children quickly adapted to wearing masks last year at the start of the pandemic, especially if their parents and close adults wore masks and promoted the importance of wearing masks to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

My advice is simple: Have your child wear a mask in school. I’m confident that kids will adapt, especially if it means returning to in-person classes, preventing the spread of the virus, and minimizing the possibility of severe or long-term effects of COVID-19.

Dr. Naya Antink, MD is a Pediatrician and Pediatric Medical Director at the Saint Alphonsus Medical Group and the mother of two school-age children.

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