Keep Masks in Etowah Schools
Keep Masks in Etowah Schools
Dear Etowah County Board of Education/Etowah County Schools,
I am writing this letter as a parent, on behalf of the children who will be attending Etowah County Schools for the 2021-2022 academic year. Before the end of the school year, ECS announced that masks and vaccines will be optional in schools.
The CDC is recommending that unvaccinated individuals, including children, continue to wear masks. As vaccines are not yet approved for children under the age of 12, I ask that you adhere to the current CDC guidelines for all SCS schools for the 2021-2022 academic year.
The current CDC guidelines for K-12 schools state explicitly: “All schools should implement and layer prevention strategies and should prioritize universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing.” In fact, the “universal and correct usage of masks” is listed as the number 1 priority in the CDC’s prevention strategies to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in schools—particularly for schools offering in-person instruction. Our best chance for making sure that our kids have access to in-person learning this year is to continue requiring masks for unvaccinated children and staff.
The failure to require masks in all school settings is contrary to both the CDC guidelines and the current ADPH guidelines, which state: “Until more people and children are vaccinated, teachers, school administrators, and staff should continue to follow CDC’s school guidance” and “Children under 12 years old will still need to take precautions, including wearing a well-fitted mask.”
As of the writing of this letter, 99% of the individuals killed by COVID-19 in the past month were unvaccinated. Alabama has one of the lowest rates of vaccination in the country with only 32.2 % of the population fully vaccinated, which includes zero children under the age of 12 (excluding those enrolled in clinical trials). Children can and do contract and spread COVID-19, as evidenced most recently by the outbreak among 85 unmasked campers at an Illinois summer camp. Children can, and do, experience long-term (“long haul”) symptoms following a COVID-19 infection, even if they were asymptomatic.
After months of decline, the positivity rate in our community has begun to climb again. This trend is likely to continue over the coming weeks as the Delta variant of SARS-CoV2 becomes the dominant strain. The Delta variant can make vaccinated people sick, which means they can spread it to unvaccinated individuals. All children ages 12 and younger are unvaccinated. Alabama is 1 of 5 states where the Delta variant is expected to cause “very dense outbreaks.” The extent to which vaccinated individuals are susceptible to this variant is still under investigation. The vaccine does seem to protect from hospitalization and death caused by Delta, but again, none of our young children are vaccinated.
Let us not forget that death is not the only possible outcome. Studies are increasingly showing that up to 30% of people who contract COVID-19 develop long-haul symptoms and many of those develop long-term mental health problems (depression, suicidal ideation). A study was recently published showing that COVID-19 may cause shrinkage in parts of the brain—such damage could be devastating to the still-developing brain of a child. This should be incredibly alarming to educators. While data is currently limited in the U.S., studies show that up to 40% of children in Italy and approximately 15-20% of children in England are experiencing “long-haul” COVID-19 symptoms.
Requiring masks again for the 2021-2022 academic year (or at a minimum, the Fall 2021 semester) is the least ECS can do to protect students and staff. It is tempting to expect that concerned parents can simply mask their own child and that this should be enough—it is not. Masks are an effective mitigation tactic, but masks work best when they are widely used. Pandemic mitigation—and public health more broadly—is not, and has never been, reducible to individual choices. As Ed Yong recently wrote in The Atlantic “An individual’s choices can ripple outward to affect cities, countries, and continents; one sick person can seed a hemisphere’s worth of cases.”
Given that we now have an even more highly transmissible variant, Delta, circulating in our community and an entire unvaccinated population (children), there is absolutely no reason for ECS to deviate from the current CDC and ADPH guidelines that masks continue to be required in schools. It is essential to require masks until all school children have the opportunity to receive the vaccine. The current timeline estimates that vaccines will be available to children sometime in September, after which it will likely take 6-8 weeks to have the full strength of immunity. Our children proved to us last year that they can adapt to these measures and that they can be active participants in helping to keep their friends, families, and communities safe. While inconvenient, one more semester of masks is not going to kill anyone—but this virus might.
I am sending this letter to the ECS Superintendent and Shelby County Board of Education members, but also to surrounding communities’ school boards so that they can be apprised of the concerns of Etowah County citizens about the ECS decision to act in violation of current public health guidelines.
Although there is pushback about masks being political, it is critical to put political ideals aside and focus on the science, which has repeatedly shown that masks, in conjunction with handwashing, save lives. As of the writing of this letter, children do not have access to a vaccine and there are no effective antivirals specific to SARS-CoV2. The responsible, ethical, and evidence-based decision is for Etowah County Schools to require masks for all elementary-aged children.