Should mask mandates be dropped in public schools with new Omicron variant spreading?By Cash Michaels, Peacemaker Senior Contributor / February 24, 2022
The COVID-19 crisis is not over, and yet, as the pandemic enters its third year, mask mandates imposed by local school boards are quickly being recalled, or at the very least, being made optional.
But is this a good thing, especially in public schools where African American students are more than likely be in the majority, and a new sub variant of Omicron quickly spreading?
A week ago, Gov. Roy Cooper, like many other governors across the nation in recent days, announced that because of North Carolina’s improved vaccination rate, expanded testing and a falling number of new COVID-19 cases, he was calling on area school boards and local municipalities to drop their mask mandates.
In concert, the N.C. General Assembly last week passed the Free the Smiles Act, giving parents the legal right not to have their children wear protective masks in school.
Republican legislative leaders hailed passage of the new law, saying that the state’s “youngest students are suffering under these mask mandates” and that “the social and emotional damage of [wearing masks] will not be understood for years…” and that “some children could be impacted for decades.”
And as if on cue, school boards across the state have been dropping their mask mandates, some reacting to the pressure put on them by parents.
But not everyone agrees that now is the time to lift what little protection children have in school from COVID-19 or its variants before there is more conclusive information.
According to Dr. David L. Hill, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, as well as a pediatric hospitalist at Wayne UNC Health Care in Goldsboro, on the Helio Medical website in a February 11th story that he said it may be too soon to lift mask mandates.
“The trends in COVID-19 transmission are certainly encouraging. But in the vast majority of the country, the total infection and hospitalization rates are still quite high,” Dr. Hill said.
“Public health experts are working to identify criteria based on prevalence in given communities, vaccination rates and the transmissibility of the currently circulating SARS-CoV-2 variant. I would personally love to see us in a place within weeks or months when those indicators tell us that masking is no longer needed, but most experts would agree we’re not quite there yet. In the meantime, I’m just hoping that this newest BA.2 subvariant of Omicron doesn’t put us right in the middle of yet another wave.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The Omicron variant is a variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The B.A. 2 subvariant of Omicron is spreading rapidly, accounting for one out of every five new COVID-19 cases.” Dr. Hill urged all school districts “…to keep all their students and faculty as safe as possible as long as necessary.
“We’ve seen significant differences in COVID-19 transmission between schools with masking and those without. I know I feel better that my children attend schools with masking guidelines.”
Dr. Hill added that he agreed that school boards should consider masking mandates for other respiratory infections, like influenza.
Cash Michaels is a journalist covering state news with the Carolina Peacemaker. He is based in Cary, N.C.
Editor’s Note: At this time, the reporting of a positive or negative result from a COVID-19 home test is optional meaning that many people may not be reporting their testing status to their local health department or any healthcare entity. Therefore, public health agencies across the country do not have a truly accurate picture of positive or negative test results done with COVID-19 home tests.