AUSTIN (KXAN) — A top pediatrician organization released recommendations Monday for the upcoming school year that conflict with recent federal guidance about masking in school buildings.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggested that everyone older than two should wear a mask in school this fall regardless of their vaccination status.
In a news release, AAP stated it “recommends universal masking because a significant portion of the student population is not yet eligible for vaccines, and masking is proven to reduce transmission of the virus and to protect those who are not vaccinated. Many schools will not have a system to monitor vaccine status of students, teachers and staff, and some communities overall have low vaccination uptake where the virus may be circulating more prominently.”
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised its stance on this issue. The agency stated vaccinated teachers and students do not need to wear masks inside school buildings. The new health authority for Austin-Travis County, Dr. Desmar Walkes, previously told KXAN that her forthcoming recommendations for local schools would follow the CDC guidelines.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium seemed to side with the AAP. They’re encouraging everyone — not just school kids — to immediately start wearing a mask again, regardless if they’re vaccinated.
“In the absence of a significant behavioral change right now, the metropolitan region still has the capacity to have a pandemic surge that could threaten healthcare capacity in our region sometime even as quick as the next month or so,” Spencer Fox, the consortium’s associate director, said.
Fox and his team released new predictions Monday about where the pandemic is heading in the area, and the expectations are troubling. Fox said Travis County is already experiencing another coronavirus surge, with hospital admissions for COVID-19 quadrupling in the last week and a half.
“It’s important for everyone to consider wearing masks for all ages,” he said. “Masks are very effective in slowing transmission. I think our results and projections suggest that school has the potential to exacerbate the pandemic in our region and so anything we can do to prevent transmission while also getting kids in school safely for in-person education will be beneficial to our community”
School districts’ plans
Despite conflicting recommendations from the CDC and AAP, the Texas governor already banned the state’s school districts from requiring masking. Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order that went into effect in June that would not allow districts to keep masking requirements in place for the fall semester.
The Austin Independent School District told KXAN that it will share updated health guidelines this Thursday for the new school year, but a spokesperson said they won’t likely depart much from the previous year. However, the district stated it will keep encouraging all unvaccinated people to continue wearing masks, but it will not be mandated due to the state restrictions.
The Round Rock Independent School District has yet to finalize its health plan for the new school year. A district spokesperson said that remains a work in progress particularly because of the changing COVID-19 conditions.
Next month Ashley Walker’s six-year-old daughter, Addison, starts first grade in Round Rock. Since she’s too young to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Walker said she’s feeling “apprehensive” about Addison going back to classes in person.
“I do know that I will send her with masks in the school building,” Walker said, “but then I get concerned with whether she’s going to get bullied or mask-shamed because she’s having to wear one.”
She said her worries won’t subside until Addison’s no longer the only family member who’s unvaccinated.
“I’m concerned that if my daughter was to contract the virus, she’d get very sick, or she’d get my mom sick, who’s on immunosuppressants,” Walker said, “so then we’d have an even bigger issue. I don’t want that for my family. My family doesn’t deserve that.”
She also said it would be a losing fight to now urge the district’s board of trustees to enact a mask requirement because it’s not allowed under the governor’s order.
“Without mask mandates, without social distancing protocols, we’re going to end up in the exact same situation where we had to pull everybody out of school, and no one wants that — no one,” Walker said.
The AAP’s guidance Monday comes as COVID-19 cases climb once again across the U.S., including in the Austin area. Austin Public Health announced the area is returning to Stage 3 of the department’s risk-based guidelines due to the arrival of the delta variant, increasing cases and strained health care resources.