With COVID restrictions loosening, should parents still send their kids to school in masks? Experts weigh in.

·6 min read
Teens are seen walking to school in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Teens walking to school in in Brooklyn, N.Y., on the first day of lifting the indoor mask mandate for Department of Education K-12 schools, on March 7. (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

While mask mandates have been common in schools for much of the pandemic, many that were in place across the U.S. have recently been lifted after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released looser masking recommendations last month.

Many school districts have stressed the importance of allowing people to make their own decisions about whether they want to continue to mask up. But, in general, it has become more common to see kids without masks in schools right now.

Still, masking hasn't gone away entirely. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told NBC News earlier this week that it's likely masking will come back at certain points. "I would say put your masks in a drawer, anticipate you may need them again and hope that we don't," she said. "We may want to be more vigilant during some seasons. Maybe during respiratory season, if things ramped up, we would want to put on our masks again to protect both from flu and from COVID and from all other respiratory diseases."

All of this raises questions for parents about masking etiquette in schools — namely when you should still send your child to school in a mask. That's especially true especially given that it's still cold and flu season, with allergy season just around the corner.

The answer is a little complicated, and we're still as a society trying to figure it all out, Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. However, there are some baseline rules to consider.

Through at least the rest of this school year, you should have a healthy suspicion for COVID-19 if your child develops any of the symptoms of the virus, including a runny nose and cough, Dr. Juan C. Salazar, physician-in-chief and executive vice president of academic affairs at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. If your child has any symptoms of the virus, you should test the child for COVID-19, he says.

But, Salazar says, it's important to remember that rapid home tests aren't 100 percent reliable. "You could have a false negative," he points out. "At least for this school year, if your child is sick with a cough and runny nose and they're COVID-negative, they should still stay home."

In a perfect world, you'd keep children home for the whole time they have symptoms, Russo says. "It's best to stay home if they're symptomatic even if it isn't COVID-19 to prevent the spread of other respiratory viruses like flu and RSV," he says. In reality, though, Russo acknowledges that no one will actually do this, given that you can have symptoms of a cold for weeks.

So he recommends testing your child again on day two and, if it's negative again, sending the child to school in a mask. "Even better if they have a negative PCR test," he says. (PCR tests are still considered the gold standard of COVID testing, but you'll need to see your child's pediatrician or visit a testing center for this.) "If you wear a mask, that will serve to protect others," he says.

There's etiquette to consider here too. And, again, this is an evolving area, etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore tells Yahoo Life. "From an etiquette perspective, if your child has a cold, the courteous thing to do would be to have them wear a mask to protect others," she says. However, Whitmore says, your child's school may have a policy in place that requires a student to stay home from school, even if that student has a negative COVID test, so you'll want to check the rules first.

Etiquette expert Elaine Swann agrees that masking is a good idea in this situation. "Etiquette, in essence, is about putting others at ease," she tells Yahoo Life. "If there's anything you can do to help others feel comfortable in this instance, whether it be fellow students or the teacher, you should do what you can to modify behavior."

It's also polite to reach out to your child's teacher to let them know in advance you're aware that your child has cold-like symptoms, that the child has tested negative for COVID-19 (if that's true) and that you want the student to wear a mask, just to be considerate of others, Swann says. "Let the teacher know that you're taking precautions for the next few days to help set them and others at ease," she says.

Salazar stresses that this might become even more of a thing as cold and flu season segues into allergy season. "If your child has tested negative for COVID and is developing allergy symptoms they always have this time of year, it's a good idea to still have the child mask up so they don't get a look from the kids and teachers around them," he says.

While it's common in other parts of the world to mask up when you're sick out of courtesy to others, it's unclear if it will take off in the U.S., Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "There isn't any doubt that our social isolation and masking had a really profound effect on reducing the occurrence of influenza and common colds," he says. "But in many parts of the country, the desire to get rid of the mask is so strong that it may overwhelm any indication to put the mask back on, regardless of the circumstances."

Still, he anticipates that mask usage will pop back up here and there, especially during flu outbreaks. "A lot of parents will recognize that this is transient and temporary," he says. "We're used to this now."

Swann agrees. "After what we have experienced in the U.S. and around the world, I believe that we still start to see a shift in some individuals who will elect to wear a mask when they are sick to protect others," she says. "It helps put others at ease."

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