Novel coronavirus cases continue to surge in numerous states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has called face mask protection a "critical preventive measure" to slow down the spread of COVID-19. But prior conflicted public health messaging has caused the use of cloth face coverings to become a divisive discussion that's symbolic of the United States' fractured response to the deadly pandemic. Now, this debate has headed to school.
The Heated Debate About Face Mask Protection
Who should wear face mask protection? Who will provide it? And who will take care of the various logistical conundrums that they pose, such as standardizing cleaning procedures, accommodating special needs students, and ensuring that distracted students aren't tugging or removing their masks during class?
These questions plague school officials as they feverishly plan reopenings in spite of coronavirus spikes across the country. Unfortunately, the answers to them have been anything but clear. Rather, they've been a head-scratching hodgepodge of confusing statements.
Not long ago, U.S. health officials initially dismissed the need for face mask protection. Since then, substantial evidence has mounted that COVID-19 can be spread via airborne particles. And indoor environments with limited air circulation, such as schools and college facilities, carry a significantly higher risk for contact with the virus.
Current research seems to hint that children are less likely to spread the coronavirus or become gravely ill if they contract it. But that doesn't mean they are immune. Besides this, many teachers and school facility staff members are much older than their students and have underlying health conditions. This means they have a higher potential to face fatal outcomes if infected. Consequently, health officials now consider face mask protection a crucial safety precaution.
A Fractured Response for Reopening Schools
Decisions regarding who should wear masks at school and when are being made at the state or district levels. There are stark differences in each state's approach; these tend to depend on how much local officials believe recent scientific analyses of how COVID-19 spreads.
Heeding guidance from the CDC, some states have mandated face mask protection for all students and school staff. Other states are only requiring face coverings for older students and employees. Some have even left the decision up to individual districts, many of which have stated that they'll not require any face masks.
It's difficult for local school officials to not get caught in this confusing crossfire. Not only are they inundated with ever-evolving and frequently conflicting direction from state and federal leadership, but they often also have to figure out how to pay for any ramped up health safety measures while contending with constrained budgets. Several state officials have stood by their open-ended guidance on the matter, claiming it allows each district to create viable, well-suited plans according to local pandemic conditions.
In practice, this flexibility has mostly been a burden that subjects school leaders to an assortment of lobbying. In some places, parents are resisting mask mandates, not only for their children but for themselves as well. On the other side, numerous teachers' unions are demanding required face mask protection.
Some educational facilities have concluded that mandated face mask wearing isn't realistic. For instance, Tennesse's guidelines state that all students and school staff should wear face masks. But Oneida High School, located an hour north of Knoxville, has chosen to supply masks without requiring students to wear them. Similar divided responses are occurring in Georgia, Florida, Montana, Texas, and numerous other states as well.
Here’s What the CDC Says
The CDC strongly suggests that all school reopenings adhere to COVID-19 mitigation strategies. These include washing hands frequently, social distancing, regular disinfection of frequently touched surfaces, and wearing cloth face mask protection. All people should wear face coverings in public settings, especially when social distancing is difficult to maintain.
COVID-19 can still be spread to others even if you don't experience any common symptoms of the virus. Face mask protection is an essential line of defense that could prevent the spread of this illness to others, and it could be the difference between life or death. Thus, it's extremely important that everyone in a school wear face masks since social distancing is hard to implement and the environment is mostly indoors.
For younger students or those with special health or educational needs, consistently wearing face mask protection can be a challenge. The CDC has supplied this document to provide guidance for school administrators to more easily facilitate the proper usage of face masks during this difficult time.
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