Everyone older than age 2 should wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, when schools reopen in the fall, according to updated guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics released Monday.
“We need to prioritize getting children back into schools alongside their friends and their teachers -- and we all play a role in making sure it happens safely,” Sonja O’Leary, chair of the AAP Council on School Health, said in a statement. “The pandemic has taken a heartbreaking toll on children, and it’s not just their education that has suffered but their mental, emotional and physical health. Combining layers of protection that include vaccinations, masking and clean hands hygiene will make in-person learning safe and possible for everyone.”
The leading national pediatrician group said it recommends universal masking because so much of the student population isn't yet eligible for vaccination. It's not clear how quickly that will change, or how likely parents will be to get their younger children dosed when the federal government approves shots for kids under 12.
Research consistently shows opening schools in person doesn't generally increase community COVID transmission when masks and other protocol are employed, AAP said, and the emergence of more contagious variants, some of which are linked to more severe outcomes, poses a particular threat to people who aren't vaccinated.
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said masks shouldn’t be required for anyone in schools who are fully vaccinated. Now the contradictory guidance from leading health experts isn't helping parents.
Many Massachusetts parents interviewed Monday had mixed reactions to the latest guidance.
"I think parents need to have that option on whether to mask their kids or not," said Needham parent Melissa Bello.
"That's good to have masking for the kids," Waltham parent Subas Khadka said.
"She hates the mask, she hates wearing it. She was excited she didn't have to wear it," Belmont parent Melody Barrile said of her child. "I'm on the fence about it because I feel like I want to protect my daughter."
Dr. Rick Malley of Boston Children's Hospital said that while it's true current data shows children are less at risk of developing severe complications from COVID, it's also too early to say what variables will be at play in the fall.
"We have to be a little bit careful given the emergence of the variants and the fact that many of these schools were closed for many, many months when the virus was raging," he said.
Some parents said they hope school districts will proceed with caution.
"The kids in my school are already wearing masks, so I don't know what the big deal is," Lowell parent Tim Kabuie said.
Still others feel the mask is more detrimental to children than the virus itself.
"I think the narrative that schools continue to be unsafe while everywhere else is safe for our children to be unmasked needs to end," said Bedford parent Kelly Horton.
A spokesperson for state department of education said there is no updated guidance right now. The latest guidance they issued in May said a decision on masking in schools would be made over the summer in conjunction with the state Department of Health.