Commentary

To protect kids, Walz needs to mandate a statewide school mask mandate

July 23, 2021 6:00 am

Masks will be an important tool to prevent the spread of the virus among children. Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images.

We need to keep two truths in mind as the summer comes to an end:

First, school is incredibly important for our children. Schools provide a space not only for traditional education, but also social development, healthy relationships and a safety net for students who are struggling with access to food and housing. Schools are primary in the emotional well being of our children, so we must make sure that schools are as safe as possible as students return in the fall. 

This leads to the second truth, that COVID-19 is dangerous for children. Though fortunately less serious in kids than adults, the infection is not benign. Like adults, children can become very ill from either the virus or a secondary inflammatory response known as MIS-C. Adolescents, specifically, were more likely to be hospitalized for COVID in 2021 than for influenza in a typical year. 

Children can also experience prolonged health consequences from this virus, including lung disease, exercise intolerance and decreased cognitive function. This can lead to lasting harm even without a severe initial illness. The pandemic has also inflicted significant emotional harm on children. More than 40,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent to COVID. Further, all children have had significant disruption in their education, social development and — in many cases — family financial stability, resulting in increased rates of depression, anxiety and suicidality.

When thinking about our state’s approach to public health policy, we must always center on the impact on children. We can protect our kids from both the physical and emotional harm this virus has caused and will continue to cause. One key way of doing this is making it safe for all children to return to school this fall. 

We currently have two effective tools to keep our children safe from COVID-19 when they return to school. The first is vaccination. The Pfizer vaccine is approved by the FDA for use in children ages 12 and older. It provides students excellent — but not complete — protection against infection. Vaccination is not a panacea, however, largely because it is not available for elementary-aged students and not widely used in the rest. Currently 34% of children ages 12-15 in Minnesota are vaccinated, and that number increases to just 47% among 16-17 year olds. This means that the vast majority of Minnesota students remain unvaccinated. 

Because Minnesota has some of the most lax vaccine exemption laws in the country, schools are unable to require vaccination even after full FDA approval. While we must continue our work to encourage families to vaccinate, we cannot rely on this to keep all children safe. 

This leaves us with the other tool that we know protects from viral spread: masks. Masks are a safe, effective and easily implemented tool to reduce the spread of COVID among children. As more students return to the classroom, physical distancing will not be possible, so masks will be their only protection. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that all students and teachers wear masks at school regardless of their vaccination status. We should adopt this policy state-wide. 

Unfortunately, mask-wearing has become a cultural flashpoint, making the issuer of any mandate open to significant political attacks. It’s therefore essential that the decision to require masks in schools be made on a state level, preventing political differences at the local level from harming the health of our kids. 

This means Gov. Tim Walz, a former teacher himself, now needs to step up — and lead. 

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Hannah Lichtsinn
Hannah Lichtsinn

Dr. Hannah Lichtsinn is a primary care internist and pediatrician in Minneapolis and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota. She is a co-founder of the Minnesota Immigrant Health Alliance and co-chair of the health advocacy organization, Our Stories. Our Health.

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