Hiding students is now up to parents

Crozet Elementary students use Ozobots and Play-doh in a project at the school library in October 2021. Photo: Lisa Martin.

A new Virginia law passed in February says parents have the right to decide whether their children should wear masks in public schools, removing that power from state and local governments, agencies and school boards. The law allows “the parent of any child enrolled in a public elementary or secondary school, or in any school-based early childhood care and education program, to elect that that child not wear a mask while on school grounds”. It also stipulates that parents are not required to give reasons for their decision and that students should not suffer adverse disciplinary or academic consequences as a result of their parents’ choice.

State Senate Democrat Chap Petersen sponsored the amendment backing a parental right to decide on student masking on Feb. 8, and it passed with bipartisan Senate support. The measure then passed the House of Delegates and was signed into law by Governor Glenn Youngkin with an effective date of March 1. State Sen. Creigh Deeds, whose district includes Crozet and Charlottesville, voted against the bill.

“Nobody knows what the next variant of this pandemic will produce. No one knows what the next pandemic is going to produce,” Deeds said. “But we’re putting language in the code…it’s going to mean that our school boards can’t make decisions about how best to respect the health of their students.” The House of Delegates representative for Crozet, Chris Runion, voted in favor of the bill.

Dr. Eliza Holland, pediatric hospitalist at UVA Children’s Hospital.

Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) issued a statement Feb. 16 acknowledging the law and the school division’s intent to comply with its provisions. “As per the mandate, the decision whether or not to wear a mask at school will be made and enforced at home, not at school. Students will not be questioned at school about this choice,” the statement read. The division also noted that masking will still be required for students traveling on school buses (in accordance with federal law), for all school employees, including teachers, and for all visitors to schools and of the division’s facilities.

CSPA said it would still “strongly” encourage students to wear masks, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The statement also said that “[t]his new state law does not impact our other mitigation strategies, such as isolating students who test positive for the virus and quarantining students who are identified as close contacts . Close contact is defined as being within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more.

Although current CDC guidelines call for a five-day quarantine for unvaccinated people who have close contact with someone infected with COVID-19 (and no quarantine if they are vaccinated and asymptomatic), CASP continues to requiring a ten-day quarantine for any student. who had close contact.

Kathryn Goodman, director of communications for the Blue Ridge Health District, said that “[w]While the Virginia Department of Health and BRHD continue to recommend (not require) the use of masks in indoor settings due to high rates of disease transmission throughout Virginia, the health ordinance policy mandating the use of masks in K-12 environments has been rescinded. Masks are only required on school buses and other forms of public transportation, per federal law.

Two major pediatric medical practices in Charlottesville and Crozet — Piedmont Pediatrics and Pediatric Associates of Charlottesville — released a joint statement on social media in support of continuing masking for all students. “Universal masking in schools must continue as part of a tiered mitigation protocol, protecting all of our children, teachers and school staff, in addition to families and the wider community, and keeping schools open for in-person learning,” the statement read. A message accompanying the statement added that “[w]We know masks are not harmful to children and masks are incredibly effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19,” and urged community members to “please listen to the science.”

Contrary to the near-uniform recommendation of continued mask-wearing for all students in Albemarle County, some local pediatricians are questioning the idea that prolonged mask-wearing for children is safe. Dr. Eliza Holland is a pediatric hospitalist who cares for patients admitted to UVA Children’s Hospital and has worked with local schools and camps to implement COVID-19 protocols for the past two years. “We need to look at the effects of policies like masking on children, not just from a health perspective, but also from a social, emotional and educational perspective,” Holland said. “We now realize that our children have been carrying a very heavy burden for two years, and it has not been without costs.”

Holland is part of a nationwide group of doctors and scientists who have formed a nonprofit called Urgency of Normal, which launched in January and advocates for continued in-person learning, de-escalation of fear of contracting Covid and the appropriate balancing of risk. to children’s health. “Right now we are seeing a mental health crisis in our children, which was already severe and has only gotten worse during the pandemic,” Holland said. “I have admitted far more children with severe eating disorders, suicidal ideation and drug overdose than I have with severe Covid.”

The summary of the normal urgency of the evidence to date on the effectiveness of student masking states that “[w]well-controlled real-world studies have shown no clear benefit of masking students. While a widely publicized CDC study found a higher incidence of Covid among students in Georgia schools who did not require masks, the difference was found to be not statistically significant. Other studies did not control for important confounding variables such as vaccination rates among college students. “When the actual benefits of an intervention are too small to measure, we should feel comfortable ending its use,” the abstract concludes.

On the other side of the ledger, Holland notes that masking creates real obstacles. “Masking makes it difficult for each other and their teacher to understand each other, and difficult for children with speech problems to make themselves understood,” she said. “It’s more difficult for children for whom English is a second language to communicate, and children with special needs who cannot comply with mask mandates are excluded from the school environment.”

Holland said she’s observed that children have learned not to feel safe without a mask and that those anxieties can have longer-term consequences. “Health messaging lacks nuance and risk stratification has not been well described,” she said. “Unvaccinated children are still at a much lower risk of serious illness and hospitalization than vaccinated adults.” Additionally, transmission rates in children are much lower than in adults, according to CDC data.

“Children are treated as if they are horrible spreaders, and they are the ones who must continue to mask themselves as if they pose a threat to everyone around them”, even if adults are allowed to unmask, Holland said. “As some of my colleagues have said, the impact on the mental, social, emotional and behavioral health of our children cannot be measured by a PCR [test]”, said Hollande. “We are so focused on the burden of disease, but the burden of mitigation measures is high.