Pediatricians join call for masking in schools as conservatives chafe at governor’s ‘mandate’

‘Face masks have been scientifically proven to be effective, well-tolerated and safe’

By: - August 10, 2021 12:01 am

Students at Watkins Elementary in Chesterfield County attend class wearing masks in 2020. (Chesterfield Public Schools)

With many students about to head back to classes later this month, the Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics says all children, regardless of vaccine status, should wear masks indoors in school.

“This is based on the observation that COVID-19 infection rates are rapidly increasing across the commonwealth, the Delta variant is more contagious than previous strains of the virus and can be spread by even those that are vaccinated and face masks have been scientifically proven to be effective, well-tolerated and safe,” the group, which represents more than 1,300 members across Virginia, said in statement.

Last week, Gov. Ralph Northam said school districts would be expected to impose universal masking, an announcement that came just weeks after his administration left decisions on school COVID-19 precautions in local hands and after some large school systems said they would make masks optional. Northam said a state law passed early this year requires school systems to offer in-person instruction and to adhere “to the maximum extent practicable” to all safety recommendations set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which announced last week that it recommends universal masking in schools regardless of vaccination status.

Some Virginia Republicans have said Northam is misrepresenting the legislation that passed with bipartisan support and have chafed over what a GOP state senator and Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin called a de facto “mask mandate.”

State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, an OB-GYN who sponsored the legislation reopening schools, told a conservative radio host Monday morning that Northam’s statement amounted to “malfeasance of leadership.”

“I believe the governor wants a mask mandate but he is unwilling to make the call himself so he has found an indirect way where he can claim it’s somebody else’s decision,” she said. “Several weeks ago he told school divisions you may decide for yourself. … Thursday he drops the bomb that that this law may be a problem for them and they should check with their legal counsel.”

Asked by the Mercury last week whether she thought kids should wear masks in schools, Dunnavant didn’t give a straight answer. “Parents and schools need to collaborate and take into consideration the latest information and guidelines as well as every child’s individual challenges to make a decision that ensures every child has in-person education,” she said.

Dunnvant told WRVA Monday that “the conversation we should be having as parents, teachers (is) this is what the CDC guidelines say. Maybe we should think about doing this for a month but we understand that some of your kids can’t see or have anxiety or can’t learn and really in person is the most important so let’s work together not under a mandate, but in a collaboration. Let’s have a community agreement where we figure this out together and do what’s best for our children, but mandates are not that. “

The Virginia chapter of the pediatric association said keeping schools open is “best accomplished through effective mitigation strategies that include vaccination of eligible children and the wearing of face masks by all children except those with a medical exemption determined by a physician,” adding that increasing vaccination remains a parallel priority.

“Continuing to use a simple, important layer of mitigation (masks) during a time of substantial community spread of disease will reduce illness and quarantine and keep more children healthy and in school, allowing families to continue to go to work as well.”

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers before becoming editor of the Virginia Mercury in 2018. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact him at [email protected]

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