States announce the end of school mask mandates. Experts say it's time.

Students are back in class amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep you posted on what’s unfolding throughout U.S. schools — K-12 as well as colleges — Yahoo Life is running a weekly wrap-up featuring news bites, interviews and updates about the ongoing situation.

More states announce the end of school mask mandates

The number of states that plan to end school mask mandates continues to grow. Connecticut and New York saw their statewide school mask mandates end this week. New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced Friday that the city's school mask mandate is also coming to an end. Masks will be optional in the city's K-12 schools run by the New York City Department of Education starting Monday, March 7.

California, Washington and Oregon also announced the end of school mask mandates.

The Western states "moved together" to end their mandates, according to a press release from California Gov. Gavin Newsom's office. "California continues to adjust our policies based on the latest data and science, applying what we've learned over the past two years to guide our response to the pandemic," Newsom said in a statement. "Masks are an effective tool to minimize spread of the virus and future variants, especially when transmission rates are high. We cannot predict the future of the virus, but we are better prepared for it and will continue to take measures rooted in science to keep California moving forward."

The mandates will lift in schools in all three states on or just after 11:59 p.m. PT on Friday, March 11.

Infectious disease experts say it's time. "I do think that most schools will eventually end mask mandates, and the CDC guidance gives them the ability to do so with confidence," Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Yahoo Life. "Vaccines are widely available, hospitals are not currently worried about capacity, and there are new tools to deal with COVID-19, so I think that schools can adapt their mitigation measures."

But as Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, told Yahoo Life, "There is still COVID out there." He urges people to consider wearing a mask indoors if they are at high risk of COVID-19 complications, including those who are unvaccinated, immunocompromised, eligible for a booster but have not yet received one and are either older than 50, have a significant health condition or are pregnant — or if they live with anyone from these groups. "Avoiding getting infected is not all about your chances of developing severe disease, but is also about protecting against the development of long COVID and potential long-term consequences, which is particularly important for our school-aged children," he said.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Yahoo Life that he expects some areas will "hang on longer" to school mask mandates, especially if there is a lot of COVID-19 transmission in their area. "But I see the end of mask mandates as a pretty rapid movement across the country right now, for better or worse," he said.

Study finds Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doesn't prevent many kids from contracting COVID-19

A new study from health officials in New York state found that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine isn't as effective at preventing children ages five to 11 from getting COVID-19 as it is in older teens and adults. The vaccine still prevents severe illness in children, but the data suggest it offers almost no protection against infection in younger children, even just a month after their vaccination.

The researchers studied data from 365,502 children between the ages of 5 and 11 and found that vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19 cases "declined rapidly" from 65 percent to 12 percent 28 to 34 days after they were vaccinated.

"These results highlight the potential need to study alternative vaccine dosing for children and the continued importance of layered protections, including mask-wearing, to prevent infection and transmission," the researchers concluded.

With school mask mandates lifting, it's understandable for parents to have some concerns.

Russo pointed out that a study released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention soon after the New York state research found that the vaccine was more protective in the 5-11 age group. "Regardless, both studies demonstrated that vaccination protected against severe disease and hospitalizations," he said. "As we are entering into a maskless phase, vaccination is more important than ever to protect our children from the consequences of COVID." Russo urges parents whose children are unvaccinated to consider having them continue to wear masks in school until their local case counts drop to lower levels and to "get them vaccinated ASAP."

Adalja also stressed that the vaccines are working, even in this age group. "Pediatric vaccines provide significant protection against what matters: serious illness," he said. "Omicron was expected to diminish vaccine efficacy."

Schaffner suggested that parents pay close attention to what is happening with COVID-19 cases in their area. "If your child is fully vaccinated, then your level of concern can diminish," he said. "But, if local COVID-19 cases are high, your level of concern should be higher as well." Schaffner also notes that new CDC guidance recommends masking indoors in areas where transmission is high, regardless of vaccination status — and that includes masking in schools.

The NCAA releases new, looser guidelines for basketball teams ahead of March Madness

This week, the NCAA unveiled new guidelines for the Division I men's and women's basketball championships.

The guidance "encourages indoor masking" when athletes aren't practicing or competing, in their hotel rooms or eating or drinking, but notes that each team can create its own safety protocols, provided that they don't clash with local public health guidance.

The guidance said that athletes may be exempt from COVID-19 testing if they are fully vaccinated or have proof of a COVID-19 infection in the last 90 days. Those who aren't exempt have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before they travel to a tournament site.

However, the NCAA stated that local areas and venues may have more strict COVID-19 testing protocols.

Adalja said he believes it is acceptable for organizations to drop certain mitigation efforts as we move into a different stage of the pandemic. "COVID-19 is not going to be eradicated, and people have to realize that there are always going to be COVID-19 cases," he said. "Individual risk preferences are going to be what’s important for people, and they’re not going to be the same for everyone."

Russo, however, warned that "outbreaks could still occur." That's the reason why, he says, that "from both a public health perspective and to maintain your competitive edge, the best practice would be to minimize the risk of your players getting infected," including having players be fully vaccinated and boosted, if eligible, and to use high-quality, well-fitting masks in high-risk indoor settings like locker rooms.

Kansas school district uses therapy dogs to help students cope with COVID-19 stress

Kansas's Topeka Public Schools district has found a unique way to help students cope with the stress of living through a global pandemic: therapy dogs.

Superintendent Tiffany Anderson told Yahoo Life that the district has actually used therapy dogs for years, but ramped up the number of its four-legged staff members in the pandemic. "We have grown to ensure almost every school for our 13,100 students has access to a therapy dog at their school site," she said.

"It has really been amazing," Anderson said. "Therapy dogs have helped to reduce anxiety and [allow] for young people to connect with another living being that's different from adults or another classmate. It allows for stability."

A student wearing a Santa hat sits on the floor next to a friendly-looking black therapy dog. (Credit: Topeka Public Schools)
Topeka public school student sits with a therapy dog. (Credit: Topeka Public Schools)

Anderson said the dogs "can be deployed to a particular student who is having a meltdown" or can be used during a "check and connect" with a student's counselor or social worker. "Throughout the day, the therapy dog can walk through the classrooms," she said, noting that staff members all have walkie-talkies that can be used to call for a dog as needed.

The district has even used therapy dogs at school-sponsored vaccination clinics to help ease anxiety, Anderson says.

When they're not at school, therapy dogs will typically live with a staff member who agrees to be responsible for them, Anderson says. The district doesn't just use animal therapy — it also offers art and music therapy to students who are not comfortable with dogs. "We have a variety of approaches that, no matter where you are, we will meet you," Anderson said.

Anderson said that the dogs have proven their worth and that the district "absolutely" plans to continue to use them. "Animals just love on you," she explained. "They can sense your mood, and there's just an automatic willingness to help."

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