Doctors warn ending school mask mandates will lead to rise in COVID cases as several states lift requirements

Experts say not enough children are vaccinated for school mask mandates to end.

February 07, 2022, 3:34 PM

Several states across the country are considering lifting mask mandates in schools in an attempt to return to some semblance of normalcy.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and Delaware Gov. John Carney announced Monday that mask mandates in schools will come to an end in March. Illinois school districts will be deciding whether or not to make masks optional after a judge ruled against the state's mandate.

Additionally, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order last month allowing parents to choose whether their child will wear a mask in schools, although it was temporarily halted by a judge Friday.

Experts say it is too soon to end mask mandates in schools because vaccination rates are not high enough yet among the school-age population and new cases are still being reported.

"It is not safe at this time for schools to rescind mask mandates [because] even though we do have decent levels of vaccination in the older age groups, as populations get younger, the proportion who are vaccinated gets lower," Dr. Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of the department of preventive medicine and a professor of epidemiology and pulmonary and critical care at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told ABC News.

PHOTO: Students arrive for school at Stark Elementary School, March 10, 2021, in Stamford, Conn.
Students arrive for school at Stark Elementary School, March 10, 2021, in Stamford, Conn.
John Moore/Getty Images, FILE

Currently, 22.6% of Americans ages 5 to 11 and 56.4% of those ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The proportion of parents who have chosen vaccination for their children is very low and we know that masking works to stop the spread of the coronavirus," Carnethon said. "Rescinding those mandates where children 5 and up spend their days, I believe we will see rapid spread."

Proponents of mask mandates say COVID-19 is not an endemic disease yet and lifting mandates will trigger a major rise in cases.

In Wyoming, Laramie County School District 1 -- located in the capital of Cheyenne -- reported a spike in cases just two weeks after the Board of Trustees voted to end the mask mandate.

First reported by the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, nearly 400 students and 100 staff have tested positive between Jan. 24 and Feb. 4, an ABC analysis of school district data shows.

Similarly, Hopkinton High School in Massachusetts was the first public school in the state to drop masks altogether but reinstituted the mandate after a rise in cases.

Murphy said a drop in COVID-19 infections linked to the omicron variant led him to lift the mask mandate.

"Balancing public health with getting back to some semblance of normalcy is not easy," Murphy tweeted. "But we can responsibly take this step due to declining COVID numbers and growth in vaccinations."

Dr. Stanley Weiss, a professor of biostatistics & epidemiology at Rutgers School of Public Health, called it a politically motivated decision.

"Gov. Murphy's decision is a politically-based one because there is tremendous pressure coming upon everyone to get rid of the pandemic and stop talking about it and stop dealing with it because we're all tired of this pandemic," he told ABC News. "It is not scientifically based and I don't think it is a rational approach based upon what we're still seeing."

According to Patch New Jersey, in-school transmission in the state has increased over the past month.

Between Jan. 4 and Jan. 10, there were 11 cases among students and 17 cases among staff. However, between Jan. 25 and Jan. 31, there were 398 cases among students and 57 among staff.

"I have problems with the change in policy," Weiss said. "Yes, it's a limited number of cases, but if you look over time, the new outbreaks have been continuing to increase in schools. The number of student cases and staff cases has not declined. It hasn't gone away."

PHOTO: New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy talks to students in a pre-K class at the Dr. Charles Smith Early Childhood Center, Sept. 16, 2021, in Palisades Park, N.J
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy talks to students in a pre-K class at the Dr. Charles Smith Early Childhood Center, Sept. 16, 2021, in Palisades Park, N.J. On Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, Murphy's office said they will end a statewide mask mandate to protect against COVID-19 in schools and child care centers.
Mary Altaffer/AP, FILE

In Illinois, some districts have already made mandates optional after a judge ruled school districts statewide cannot require students to wear masks in classrooms.

"If data were driving these decisions, we wouldn't at all remove mask mandates right now," said Carnethon. "The school districts in the regions of Illinois that are making this optional appear to be closely aligned with the geopolitical sentiment."

Carnethon said districts where schools mask mandates are being removed are typically ones with limited testing ability and "limited enthusiasm" for policies such as requiring vaccinations in public spaces.

"These communities continue to be high-district transmission communities. These are the very decisions that are going to prolong the pandemic and lead to far more suffering than we need to have happen," she said.

Those in favor of ending the mandates in schools say the public health focus needs to shift to learning to live with COVID-19 and more attention should be given to individual choice.

An increase in cases isn't necessarily a bad thing due to children's low risk of severe illness, according to some experts. Others, like Dr. Julia Raifman, disagree.

"I think cases are a problem," Raifman, an assistant professor of health law, policy and management at Boston University School of Public Health who researches state-level policy responses to the pandemic, told ABC News.

PHOTO: Demonstrators gather during a student walkout over COVID-19 safety measures at Chicago Public Schools in Chicago, Jan. 14, 2022.
Demonstrators gather during a student walkout over COVID-19 safety measures at Chicago Public Schools in Chicago, Jan. 14, 2022.
Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

She continued, "Cases are a problem because more cases do mean more hospitalizations and deaths. There's no way around that. More cases mean more missed work and more missed school. More cases mean more people with lingering symptoms. More cases mean more of the unknown health impacts 10 years later."

Raifman added that school mask mandates should not disappear completely and that one way to keep them in place is to have more outdoor class time for kids because masks are not recommended for outdoors and students and teachers could take a break from wearing face coverings.

She gave the example of Nevada, which has a policy that enacts mask mandates when cases in a county are high.

"If people are really eager for them to end, I recommend that they not end them, that they put in place a data-driven approach that turns on the mask policies when we need them when there are big surges," Raifman said.

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