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Until there’s a vaccine for kids under 12, masks must be required in Md. schools | COMMENTARY

Roger Lyons teaches class at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore last year. This fall, all city school staff and students will be required to wear masks in class, while Harford County will start the school year without such a requirement. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)
Roger Lyons teaches class at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore last year. This fall, all city school staff and students will be required to wear masks in class, while Harford County will start the school year without such a requirement. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun) (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Let’s see if we’ve got this straight: Maryland’s children gave up more than a year of in-person education at great cost to their personal and academic growth to minimize the spread of a deadly virus that nevertheless managed to infect nearly half a million people in the state and claim almost 10,000 lives — a virus that is still raging, by the way, with case numbers on the upswing because of a variant that’s 200% more transmissible than the one that initially shut down schools. But now that adults and adolescents have a voluntary vaccine available to them, the state’s leaving the youngest kids to fend for themselves.

Does that sum it up?

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That seems to be the take-away in the recent revelation that Maryland is going to allow the personal preferences of parents and individual school districts determine whether kids wear masks when they’re sent back to the classroom in the fall. The classroom, incidentally, is where we think they belong — but with protective measures in place, for crying out loud. May we remind you: There is no vaccine available for children under 12 and likely won’t be until November at the earliest.

Well-fitted masks are proven to reduce transmission of the virus and to protect unvaccinated people of all ages. On Monday, for just that reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a recommendation that “everyone older than age 2 wear masks, regardless of vaccination status” in schools. Vaccinated people can still transmit the virus, after all, though the odds are greatly reduced.

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At the very least, Maryland should clearly and firmly recommend mask wearing for schoolchildren, as Virginia has, issuing guidance Wednesday that elementary schools should keep a mask mandate in place until a vaccine is available to children under 12 and officials have had time to widely administer it. Local jurisdictions in that state can still ignore the nonbinding advice, of course, but at least they’ve been warned. Maryland health officials say they “strongly recommend but do not require” masks indoors in general, which feels tepid by comparison. We’d prefer they go a few steps further than our Southern neighbor and not only recommend masks, but require them through at least the end of the year in both elementary and middle schools.

Leaving it up to parents and school districts to determine the rules based on their particular community’s coronavirus spread at any given moment is asking too much. School systems are not mini health departments, and we shouldn’t ask them to be. Besides, after 16 months of masking up, kids know how to do it, they are used to it, and, in our experience, they care far less about it than the adults.

And while it’s true that young children are less likely to contract the virus or suffer severe consequences from it, that doesn’t mean they can’t or don’t. As of July 15, data from the Centers for Disease Control show that more than 4 million children — 75,000 of them from Maryland — have tested positive for COVID-19 in the U.S., making up 14% of all cases. But that figure is rising as eligible older people get vaccinated, leaving children more vulnerable. From July 1 through July 15, the country added 43,000 pediatric COVID-19 cases — a figure that made up nearly 16% of all new cases and was more than double the number of child cases diagnosed in the prior two-week period.

Most children survive the illness and avoid serious complications, but not all. And there’s always the threat of so-called “long COVID,” in which a menu of debilitating symptoms — headaches, fatigue, heart palpitations — continue for months; studies have recently confirmed the phenomenon in children. And who knows what other long-term effects there are from hosting the coronavirus in your body, symptomatic or not? Researchers have yet to conclude whether the virus hides out inside you only to come back as something else later on, like chickenpox and shingles. Do you really want to run the risk of this versatile virus setting up shop in your kid?

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The existence of the fast-spreading Delta variant, which now makes up 83% of the known COVID cases in the U.S., should be all the justification you need to answer a firm “no.” Unvaccinated people are virtual “variant factories,” as one professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center put it. And the more variants, the greater the chance our current crop of vaccines won’t be enough to handle the job. Already one study suggests that the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine is far less effective against both the Delta and Lambda variants than the vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

So, those feeling smug because they’ve had their shot shouldn’t be quite so quick to hang the kids out to dry. Not protecting unvaccinated children with masks just might turn them into Petri dishes for something to develop that none of us is protected against. In other words: If you can’t mask the kids for their sake, do it for yours.

We were glad to see that Maryland’s health and education departments are encouraging all school districts to expand their COVID-19 testing capabilities during the next school year, and providing federal funds to help pay for it. Catching outbreaks early is critical. But you know what’s better than catching an outbreak? Avoiding it. Gov. Larry Hogan, we should still “wear the damn masks.” Won’t you intervene?

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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