Point: Dan Ajamian
Although Colorado Springs Charter Academy (CSCA) required masks for all students during the last school year, masks will not be required for students in the upcoming school year. Masks shouldn’t be required for students at other Colorado schools either, as they are neither necessary for children, nor ideal.
Last summer we had initial data on the very low risk of children contracting COVID and having serious symptoms; however, because the data was limited, the conclusions were tentative. We therefore implemented comprehensive initiatives at CSCA to combat COVID, which kept students and staff safe, minimized quarantining, and allowed us to have full-day, in-person learning five days a week.
The data over the past year confirmed that children are at a much lower risk of contracting COVID. Children under the age of 10 make up 11.6% of Colorado’s population, yet only account for 4.7% of all COVID cases, by far the largest gap of any other age group (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment). Keep in mind that during this whole time, Colorado’s mask mandate didn’t apply to students 11 years old and younger.
The data also confirmed the extremely low risk of serious illness or death for children with COVID. Of the 897 deaths in El Paso County, there has not been even one fatality among children younger than 10 years old (El Paso County Public Health). Nationally, 99.94% of COVID fatalities occurred in populations 18 years and older (Centers for Disease Control). Preliminary studies suggest the number of fatalities in children attributed to COVID would be even lower if each was researched to determine whether it was primarily caused by a pre-existing condition.
“COVID-19 and the flu in children have ‘the same kind of morbidity,’” says Jennifer Lighter, a Pediatric Infectious Disease doctor at New York University, in a recent Washington Post article. Several studies on the matter have come to similar conclusions.
Not only are masks for children not necessary; they are also not ideal. This past year at CSCA, I received communication from many concerned parents regarding negative effects their children experienced due to daily mask wearing. I personally had conversations with some of these students about their concerns. Some common issues included migraines and breathing difficulty, which affected attendance, participation, concentration, and behavior.
These issues didn’t exist before the mask mandate and were no longer present after the school year. One CSCA parent shared the following with me: “My son started having migraines on a regular basis and missed school on many occasions. Our pediatrician diagnosed the migraines, and we had to medicate him to prevent the headaches. Once the school year and need for consistent mask wearing ended, the migraines did also, and we have successfully tapered off the medication.”
Many parents also expressed concerns they had about potential long-term negative effects (which may not be apparent for several years) of children wearing masks.
As we stand today, our current circumstances do not warrant a school mask mandate. CSCA will continue to be prudent and cautious and will adhere to state mandates. There are times and circumstances for sweeping actions, but this is not one of them. In this light, parents should have the choice to decide whether their child wears a mask.
Local, state, and national data is clear that children have a lower risk of contracting COVID and have extremely low risk of serious illness or death, with many equating it to flu morbidity. Older populations who are most vulnerable to COVID have access to the vaccine. If schools and districts look at the data and respect parental choice, I believe they will do what’s best for students and conclude that, with what we know today, there is no need for a mask mandate for students.
Counter: Bethany Winder
Children need to wear masks in the upcoming school year. The CDC just updated their recommendations and implores people and children to wear them in “high transmission” areas such as schools, regardless of vaccination status. I get it. Everyone is tired of COVID and we all want to go back to normal life. But for now, and for the foreseeable future, our new normal may be wearing a mask when inside crowded spaces such as schools. Of course, if everyone were to get vaccinated, we could eradicate this disease and not have this debate. We know that vaccines save lives. But as long as people continue to choose to not vaccinate, they are choosing the alternative — masking in populated areas like schools.
As a front-line nurse I was one of the first to get vaccinated in January. I happily threw my mask to the wind when the restrictions were lifted. My kids were still not vaccinated and continued to wear their masks. Nervous around crowds, they kept to themselves and struggled through quarantines the last few months of school in the spring. But since I was vaccinated, I cavalierly took a trip to a Las Vegas hotel — a cesspool of humanity — and came down with a breakthrough case of COVID. This left me humbled and refocused on the importance of mask wearing. Even though I am not happy about it, I wear a mask in crowded places as I do everyday at work. Wearing masks is not just to protect one’s self. It is to reduce the spread of the virus.
Our main priority should be ensuring that kids get to attend school in-person and reduce the quarantine whack-a-mole that we saw last year. Continuity of learning can be increased by reducing the spread of infection. Masks will prevent not just COVID from spreading in schools but other airborne diseases that get teachers sick and prevent them from teaching our kids. According to the Journal of Hospital Medicine, childhood diseases such as strep throat and the flu have dramatically dropped by 62% since mask wearing in the last year.
Wearing masks in schools is also essential to help keep teachers safe and schools staffed. Kids love to touch and hug and wrestle one another. They are sweet little super spreaders and spread this love to their teachers. Teachers will benefit from mask wearing in school with fewer quarantines and disruptions to in-school class time. Finding replacements for sick teachers has become nearly impossible.
Universal wearing of masks in schools will make enforcement easier for school officials and level the playing field for children. Schools are a hotbed for rumor and intrigue. Requiring every student to wear a mask will eliminate children being targeted because of a choice that their parents have likely imposed on them. There will be no questions about who is vaccinated and who is not because everyone will be held to the same standard.
Information in the COVID era is ever changing. The CDC is continually updating its guidance based on the most current data. That is the beauty of science. And science tells us that wearing masks is best to prevent the spread of COVID.
Many kids are okay wearing masks. For them, it is a new normal that can keep our loved ones safe. They have adapted to this requirement quite well. This pandemic is a perfect Darwinian lesson; those who keep up with the science, vaccinate and mask will survive, those who don’t, may not. I know I will wear a mask anytime I am in our high school and I will continue to carry hand sanitizer for those door handles that don’t get cleaned nearly enough.
COVID isn’t over yet. The data doesn’t lie. We need to keep masking, particularly in schools.
Dan Ajamian is the head of school at Colorado Springs Charter Academy, which was founded by parents and educators in 2005. Bethany Winder is a registered nurse, mother of school-aged children and co-organizer for El Paso County for Universal Health Care that advocates for a single-payer system for all Americans.