School mask mandates are ending in many states. Doctor explains how parents can prepare.

As new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to decrease, leaders in many states and cities have announced plans to lift mask mandates in schools and day care settings. Last week, governors of Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island and Nevada — mostly Democratic-leaning states that have kept COVID-safety rules in place longer than their more Republican counterparts — revealed timelines for the end of school mask mandates. Some of these will go into effect as early as the first week of March.

The news took many parents by surprise, and some voiced concerns about their states’ decisions to end the mandates. It was particularly confusing for parents who had been following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance closely, because the agency continues to recommend that all students, staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. However, that is likely changing very soon. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky announced Wednesday that the agency was preparing to update a range of guidance in the coming weeks, including masking.

Should parents be worried about the end of these school mask mandates? How should they decide whether to keep their children masked or not? How can parents and schools help reduce children’s risk of contracting COVID-19? To answer some of these questions, Yahoo News spoke to medical contributor Dr. Lucy McBride, a physician in Washington, D.C, who specializes in internal medicine.

Yahoo News: Should parents be worried about the lifting of school mask mandates?

Dr. Lucy McBride: Here's what I'm telling my patients who have children who are going back to school where mask mandates may be lifted. First of all, I would tell those parents, your kid can definitely wear a mask if he or she wants to, if he or she is at particularly high risk or if they're just not ready to not mask. Secondly, I would tell the parents to remember that the risk for severe outcomes from COVID-19 in children is very, very low, and it's even lower once the child has been vaccinated. And last, I would remind parents how very important it is for kids to get back to their normal routines, to connect with their teachers, their peers and their coaches, and to start to heal the wounds of the last two years.

How should parents decide whether to keep their children masked in school or not?

The answer to the question of whether you should send your child to school with a mask, if and when your school goes mask-optional, is really up to the parent, the child and the pediatrician, and should be based on the child's unique vulnerabilities and risk tolerance. Remembering again that most healthy children face a very low risk for poor outcomes from COVID-19.

How can parents and schools reduce children’s risk of contracting COVID-19?

For schools to help parents, children, teachers and staff understand the risk of COVID-19, it's really important to put the facts first. To make sure that we are not letting fear take over our rational brains and make sure that our fear, which is, of course, natural, is in proportion to the evidence and data that we've accumulated over the last two years. We know how extraordinarily effective the vaccine is in adults ... in protecting them from severe consequences from COVID. The same is true for children, and children face a much lower risk for severe COVID in the first place. ... That said, switching from a mask mandate to mask-optional is not about telling someone they can't [wear a] mask. It simply means it's optional and should be a decision based on your unique medical vulnerabilities and your unique risk tolerance.

What are some tools that can make the school environment safer if masks are no longer required?

The most important measures to help people stay safe within the walls of the school are: No. 1, vaccination of anybody who's eligible and who wants to get vaccinated. No. 2, ventilation: opening doors, opening windows, making sure that the ventilation systems are as good as they possibly can be. And No. 3, vigilance with following the science and the data and understanding that health is not just about preventing COVID. It's about meeting our broad human needs and connecting with our peers and our friends and getting back to normal educational in-person learning.

How important will testing be once the masks come off?

At this phase of the pandemic, in February 2022, there's really no role for asymptomatic testing of children, because that unfortunately can lead to quarantining and isolating healthy children, which is disruptive to their education and disruptive to working families. What makes sense is really to test children when they are sick, and if there's a heavy exposure.

What about children under 5, who are still not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines?

I completely relate to parents whose children are under 5 and are not yet eligible for the vaccine. I think it's super-difficult to be the last on the list. At the same time, it's really important that parents of little ones remember that [COVID-19 infection most often presents as] flulike in those kiddos and that we sent our kids to school without worrying too much before COVID-19. At the same time, I fully understand the concern and worry. The best way to protect and prevent COVID-19 in the little ones who cannot yet be vaccinated is to surround them with vaccinated adults and other children.

For the past two years, we’ve asked our children to wear masks to protect themselves and others against the virus. How do we talk to them now about the decision to not wear masks anymore, especially if many of their friends may still choose to wear their masks?

I think it's really important at this moment to be truthful and transparent with kids and to let them know that masks may have served a role back in 2020 when we didn't know much about this virus, but now that we have vaccines, now that we know how well kids are protected just by being a kid from severe outcomes of COVID, that masks are no longer mandatory. But again, we shouldn't judge anyone for wanting to mask or wanting to take off their masks because we each have unique medical vulnerabilities, risk tolerances, and we're all adjusting to this new, and hopefully better, normal.