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US: From lawsuits to sleepless nights, parents rattled by school mask policies

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With just a few weeks until school starts, Jennifer Carter, a mother in Springdale, Arkansas, is agonizing over whether to send her 8-year-old to in-person class this year.

a woman wearing a blue shirt © Provided by NBC News

Her daughter Lucy is too young to get the Covid-19 vaccine, and Arkansas is one of a handful of states that have banned schools from mandating masks.

With the contagious delta variant spreading throughout the state, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, Carter is wrestling with whether she should choose virtual learning for Lucy or risk sending her to school.

Lucy would wear a mask, but now that schools can’t enforce face coverings, Carter fears few other kids will do the same.

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“If she’s one of only two kids who is wearing a mask, how effective is a mask?” Carter said. “I just feel like they have taken away the only tool they have for the younger kids who can’t get vaccinated.”

As the academic year approaches, a patchwork approach to masks is prompting ire from parents, regardless of which policy their children's schools have chosen.

a man and a woman standing in front of a building: Jennifer and Lorne Carter with their daughters, Lucy and Natalie. (Liz Sanders / for NBC News) © Liz Sanders Jennifer and Lorne Carter with their daughters, Lucy and Natalie. (Liz Sanders / for NBC News)

Many parents, like Carter, feel it’s more necessary than ever to require masks as other Covid-19 mitigation measures, such as social distancing, are relaxed. Meanwhile, parents from New Jersey to California are filing lawsuits to have kids be maskless in schools.

The divergent views among parents come as top agencies issue conflicting guidance. Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced it was recommending masks for all children this fall, going a step further than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has said that only unvaccinated students have to wear masks.

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Much of the debate has been focused on young children, a population that has generally fared better from the coronavirus but is not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

“There was a case to be made at the beginning and middle of Covid that the risk was high, and it was best to proceed with the utmost caution, regardless of what the collateral damage was,” said Rosemary Wormley, a member of Unmask the Kids America, a grassroots organization that started in Winnetka, Illinois.

But now, she said, when widespread vaccine availability means lower rates of transmission in communities, “it feels so unfair that these young children, particularly, are still shouldering the burden of all these mitigations.”

Experts disagree, especially as states such as Mississippi report a small number of cases of Covid-19 in children severe enough to merit intensive care hospitalization.

“We need to make sure we are protecting kids,” said Dr. Grace Lee, a pediatric infectious diseases expert and associate chief medical officer for practice innovation at Stanford Children’s Health. “To me, a mask is a very easy and simple strategy.”

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The case for no masks

Those suing for an end to masks in classrooms argue that they are an impediment to learning and communicating. Some claim they are tantamount to “child abuse.” They point out that pediatric hospitalizations are just 2.3 percent of total Covid-19 hospitalizations, according to American Academy of Pediatrics statistics. They add that many children who get the coronavirus are less symptomatic, or asymptomatic. And they make the case that while estimates vary greatly, the number of children who are Covid long haulers, suffering with long-term symptoms, appears to be small.

Unmask the Kids America, which is not part of any lawsuits, promotes “commonsense policies driven by local decisionmaking,” Wormley, who lives in Northfield, Illinois, said. The group wants school districts to make their own decisions about masks, based on their school facilities, the vaccination rates in their communities and the Covid-19 positivity rates in their areas, as opposed to having statewide orders requiring masks in all schools.

a group of people posing for the camera: Rosemary Wormley and her family. Wormley is a member of Unmask the Kids America, which has supporters in almost all 50 states. (Courtesy of Rosemary Wormley) © Courtesy of Rosemary Wormley Rosemary Wormley and her family. Wormley is a member of Unmask the Kids America, which has supporters in almost all 50 states. (Courtesy of Rosemary Wormley)

For Wormley, forcing her three children, who are ages 10 to 13, to wear masks when the risk feels so low goes against her parenting ethos: empowering them, not making them feel afraid.

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“There’s a deep sense of fear that’s instilled in school. Why else would everyone be in masks when all the teachers are vaccinated?” she said. “It’s difficult to explain something that doesn’t seem to fit into common sense for a child that is old enough to understand.”

But teachers say there has been little pushback from students to masks.

“I had close to zero as possible actual recalcitrant students,” said Jay Wamsted, an eighth grade pre-algebra teacher at a school in Cobb County, Georgia, which recently announced masks will be optional when the school year starts on Aug. 2.

Wamsted has four kids, three of whom are still too young to get the vaccine, which is currently only available to children 12 and older. He says he wishes mask mandates would remain until the vaccine becomes available to younger children — something likely to happen in the wintertime.

​​“Why can’t we just ride this out?” he said. “Kids are used to this.”

What we know about children and Covid

While children have been at less risk overall from the coronavirus, they are not immune. More than 4 million in the United States have tested positive for it. Serious complications are rare, but at least 337 children have died from the virus, according to the CDC.

When it comes to transmission of the coronavirus, children under the age of 10 appear to spread it less than older children and teenagers. Still, experts warn that that is not a free pass for younger children to go mask-free, especially given the unknowns about emerging variants.

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“It’s probably easier to focus on vaccination status as opposed to age differences on transmission, because we’re still learning how variants might affect that,” said Dr. Ibukun Kalu, an assistant professor in the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Duke University Hospital.

She said this upcoming academic year does not necessarily have to include every precaution that last year’s did, “but masking should probably be the last thing to go.”

It is not clear whether the delta variant causes more severe disease in young kids than other variants, she added, but because they are not eligible for the vaccine yet, children are not protected, making masks an important tool.

But enforcement varies. At least half a dozen states besides Arkansas have banned school mask mandates, according to Burbio, a digital platform tracking masks in schools, putting families with medically fragile children in a particularly difficult spot.

Isabel Márquez and her husband David, both of whom are teachers, have four children ranging in age from 4 to 10. They live in Texas, one of the states that has banned school mask mandates. Their two youngest children are in kidney failure and at high risk of complications from the coronavirus, so sending them to school in their hometown of Rowlett was out of the question; sending their two oldest also felt unsafe.

Maddox Jolie-Pitt et al. posing for a photo: Isabel Márquez, seen with her husband and their four children. Because masks are not required in schools this year, and their two youngest children are in kidney failure, it felt too risky to send any of their kids to school. (Courtesy Isabel Márquez) © Courtesy Isabel Márquez Isabel Márquez, seen with her husband and their four children. Because masks are not required in schools this year, and their two youngest children are in kidney failure, it felt too risky to send any of their kids to school. (Courtesy Isabel Márquez)

“They’re kind of afraid, knowing people might not be wearing masks,” Márquez said, recalling one time when she took her 10-year-old to the grocery store, and another shopper pointed and started laughing at them because they were wearing masks. “If they go to school and they’ll be the only one with a mask, they have a greater risk of facing bullying.”

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With their district not offering remote schooling this year, the family has made the tough choice to homeschool their kids. Márquez and her husband will go to their jobs wearing two masks plus face shields while the kids are home with their grandmother. They will then homeschool the kids in the evenings after work.

“We’re pretty disappointed,” Márquez said. “It seems like families like us are not important.”

Meanwhile, in Arkansas, Carter is also feeling let down. If Covid-19 infections around her continue to spike, she plans to ask her teenager, who is fully vaccinated, to wear a mask to school. And she is losing sleep over whether to put Lucy, her younger daughter, in remote learning.

School will be different than last year, she said, when students were wearing masks and a hybrid schedule of remote and in-person learning made the class size smaller, giving the kids room to spread out.

a little girl playing with a frisbee in a yard: Jennifer Carter is wrestling with whether to send her unvaccinated daughter to school. (Liz Sanders / for NBC News) © Liz Sanders Jennifer Carter is wrestling with whether to send her unvaccinated daughter to school. (Liz Sanders / for NBC News)

But virtual school would not be ideal. Carter wants Lucy to be in school. She just wishes state legislators would remove the ban on school mask mandates.

“If someone chooses not to get a vaccine, that’s one thing, but our kids don’t have a choice,” she said.

Without masks, she added, “They have taken away the best tool that we have to keep them safe.”

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