Pediatricians are optimistic that students will be able to wear masks during the school year: 'Kids are really good at it'

Abby Haglage
·7 mins read

One day after President Trump criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s school reopening guidelines — calling them “impractical” and “expensive” — the organization’s director, Dr. Robert Redfield, denied claims from the White House that the guidance would be rewritten.

“It’s not a revision of the guidelines; it’s just to provide additional information to help the schools use the guidance we put forward,” Redfield said on Good Morning America. He emphasized that the CDC’s guide for reopening K-12 schools — outlined in a 10-page document — is not meant to be a mandate, but rather a list of suggestions to help empower school districts.

The document divides schools into risk level based on how much the coronavirus is spreading and then offers recommendations from there. Among the key points are methods already being explored, such as spacing desks 6 feet apart, lowering class sizes, having regular health checks to identify potential carriers and continuing to offer online learning for those who have either been infected or are immunocompromised.

Although the list is extensive, opinions on reopening schools — especially given spikes in states like Florida and Texas — continue to be mixed. To help break down some of the highest-priority measures that need to be taken for schools to reopen, Yahoo Life spoke with epidemiologists, pediatricians and teachers’ unions about the health of those in schools. Here is what they’re hoping to see in the fall.

President Trump is pressuring schools to return to in-person classrooms this fall. Here’s what physicians, epidemiologists and teachers say needs to happen to get there. (Getty Images)
President Trump is pressuring schools to return to in-person classrooms this fall. Here’s what physicians, epidemiologists and teachers say needs to happen to get there. (Getty Images)

Epidemiologists are concerned most about physical distancing

Epidemiologists, coming from a field dedicated to tracking and preventing disease, seem focused on rethinking the way kids move around in the schools. “A lot of what needs to happen is about acknowledging that we can’t remove all risk from schools, so how do we minimize as much as possible?” says Dr. Saskia Popescu, an infection prevention epidemiologist at George Mason University.

Popescu says that many of the things included in the CDC’s guidelines, such as ensuring adequate ventilation and revising classroom setup, are important. But she suggests that this thinking needs to be extended to “school processes” such as “consideration for recess or avoiding cafeteria meals, but rather having students eat in the classroom,” says Popescu.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security and an infectious disease expert, has a similar view. “It’s really about the physical layout of the school in terms of decreasing the capacity of classrooms, keeping desks 6 feet apart, face coverings,” says Adalja. “Changing operations in terms of do children change classes or stay in one classroom, how much can be done outside?”

Adalja says he believes it’s possible to make this happen. “There are ways to modify those operations in order to allow social distancing to occur, and then having a plan for when you do get cases,” he says. Furthermore, he thinks the benefits of allowing kids back to school outweigh the risks. “I think that there is a lot of epidemiological data that supports the safety of doing this.”

Physicians are hopeful that kids can wear masks

Although physicians seem equally concerned with having desks 6 feet apart and limiting contact between students, all three that Yahoo Life spoke with said they’ve been shocked how easily kids seem to adapt to masks — and are hopeful that it may work in a classroom scenario.

“Kids wear masks and kids have been quite compliant,” says Dr. Nina Shapiro a professor at UCLA and author of HYPE: A Doctor’s Guide to Medical Myths, Exaggerated Claims and Bad Advice. “They’re not touching them, they’re not fiddling with them. … Several times a day, I say, ‘Can you please put your mask above your nose?’ And I’m talking to the parents.”

Dr. Matthew Wilber, a pediatrician with Texas Children’s Pediatrics, agrees. “I will tell you, kids are really good at it,” says Wilber. “Especially 4-year-olds and up, they are good at it, and maybe it’s just the short window of time I’m seeing them in my office, but the time period that I see them they are really good at it and often better than their parents are at it. I see the parents pulling down their masks to talk, and for the kids it’s like dress-up or Halloween — they are not as bothered by it as I thought they would be.”

Cities in Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania have already announced that students will be required to wear masks while in school, and others are likely to follow suit. Yahoo Life Medical Contributor Dr. Dara Kass has a clear vision of one way in which this could be sustainable.

“I think kids could go to school with a mask on, they wash their hands as soon as they get to the classroom, they take it off and leave it on their desk in a mask bucket and they cannot leave their desk with the mask off,” she says. “So if they’re going to the bathroom, they have to put a mask on. If they’re going in and out of the classroom, they have to put one on. To me, that reminds them of what it means to walk in space around other people, and it also gives them the power to say if I stay at my desk, I don’t have to wear a mask.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics, which released its own set of school reopening guidelines, points out that certain medical conditions may make it difficult for some students to wear masks and that schools need to take this into consideration when considering mandates. But overall, pediatricians seem eager to get kids back into the classroom, both for socialization reasons and education.

Teachers’ unions are concerned about access to protective equipment

A hugely important aspect of returning to school and one that plagues teachers, whether in a pandemic or not, is resources. In a survey from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) released in late June, 76 percent of the K-12 teachers polled confirmed that they’d be willing to go back to school in the fall “if safety precautions were met,” including “adequate ventilation and cleaning, and necessary face coverings and other personal protective equipment.”

In the CDC’s recommendation for K-12 schools, it suggests that schools “intensify cleaning and disinfection efforts,” including cleaning “doorknobs, light switches and classroom sink handles.”

The National Education Association elaborated on this in its “guiding principles” on reopening schools, released in mid-June. “Schools are collaborative spaces where materials are regularly shared and social distancing might not always be possible. To minimize exposure or infection from COVID-19, we must ensure that all students and educators have continuously funded access to PPE and other disinfecting supplies,” the document reads. “Schools, many of which are already underfunded, should not be faced with the decision of how to pay for this equipment. Denying schools access and funding to PPE would exacerbate health and education inequities.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten has called on Congress to pass legislation that will assist public schools in reopening, suggesting that it may take $116.5 billion total for schools to get the resources needed to keep kids and teachers safe. “We can’t reopen the economy without reopening schools,” Weingarten said in a statement shared with Yahoo Life. “And we can’t reopen schools without the resources to do so safely.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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