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States are ending mask mandates. Is that a good idea for school students?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Mask mandates are on their way out. New York is expected to announce a change to its policy today. It will be the latest of several Democratic-led states to do so. California's governor says he will lift the indoor mask mandate for vaccinated people next week but keep them mandatory in schools for now. But four states - New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Oregon - are all planning to end school mask mandates in March. U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona says the decision may be a bit premature.

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MIGUEL CARDONA: I'm really pleased that the numbers are getting better, but I still say we need to proceed with caution and make sure that our health experts are at the table when we're making decisions.

FADEL: To discuss all of this, we have Professor Annette Anderson. She's deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools. Professor Anderson, good morning.

ANNETTE ANDERSON: Good morning.

FADEL: So states like California and New Jersey have vaccination rates of more than 70%. They've had mask mandates for the better part of two years now. Is it time to drop the mandate and figure out how to live with COVID-19, including at schools?

ANDERSON: Well, I think the vaccination rates are great so far, but we are talking about schools and children, and I think that the vaccination rates for our elementary age students are not nearly at the 70-percentile threshold. So we've got concerns about unmasking in our schools, particularly in places where the vaccine mandates have not really reached a threshold of beyond 50%. The concern that we have is that for - particularly for our younger children, that only about 22% of the children between the ages of 5 to 11 have actually been vaccinated. And so when you hear - like in New Jersey, where Governor Murphy has said that they'll remove the masks for both preschool and daycares as well as K-12 schools, there's a concern because in that youngest age group of preschoolers, the vaccine isn't even available yet. So I agree with Secretary Cardona that it may be a little premature to move into this unmasking stage so soon, even though we hear that the numbers are dropping and the positivity rates are also declining.

FADEL: You know, for a lot of parents, it probably doesn't feel very soon, having their kids in and out of school. They're worried about mental health, social skills, their ability to learn without being able to see the teacher's face, the person's mouth moving. And ultimately, incidences of kids getting really ill are pretty low. So what would you say to parents that are saying, you know what, we want to take this risk?

ANDERSON: So I think that has really been the challenge of the pandemic, that there has not been clarity amongst federal, local and state agencies about who's really in charge in the decision-making. And I think it has left parents on their own to try to figure this out. Part of the concern is that there aren't clear metrics about how states are choosing to make the decision to remove masks in schools. So we hear things like case numbers are declining, positivity rates are dropping, hospitalizations are, you know, at a low. But we don't know what the metrics should be in order to help there be some science behind this decision-making. And so that's been a challenge for parents. Parents have had to kind of lean into this and make decisions on their own.

And so while I agree that there are lots of benefits to trying to help our kids to on-ramp to more, quote-unquote, "normality" through this Year 3 of pandemics in schools, I think that there's still some challenges that we have because if we just say that we're ready to unmask without some clear metrics in place and some key decision-makers identified, then we don't know whether or not we'll ever have to return to masks. Who's the decision-maker if that has to happen? There's a lot of confusion, I think. And so parents are making these decisions on a case-by-case basis, and I don't know that that is probably the smartest idea because the pandemic isn't over yet.

FADEL: Right. And, you know, local governments are making different decisions within the same state, so you talk about this mixed messaging. And you're a former teacher and principal. What would you recommend? When should schools remove mask mandates?

ANDERSON: Well, I think I'd like to see more of our 5 to 11-year-olds vaccinated. I think, again, that that's a strong barometer for safety in schools. So I think we should be thinking about how we can develop some clear guidelines around that. The question I also have is, are we ever going to need masks again? So, you know, we need to think about what kinds of decisions and decision points we need to have in place so that we can go to that information if we have to.

FADEL: Professor Annette Anderson from the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, thank you so much for your time.

ANDERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.