The state Department of Health and Human Services does not plan to issue new COVID-19 rules for schools this fall.
Instead, school districts should decide what measures make sense based on local infection numbers and vaccination rates, and existing guidelines, said Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state epidemiologist.
On a recent conference call with educators and directors of child care centers, Chan reviewed recommendations for K-12 schools and child care from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Noting face masks have been controversial, Chan said school districts and child care agencies should decide whether to require face masks based on local conditions and after clearly communicating with the local community. But under state law, they cannot have different rules for vaccinated individuals and unvaccinated people, he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires face masks on all public transportation, including school buses regardless of the mask policy at a given school, Chan said.
DHHS posts local transmission rates on its COVID-19 dashboard, and the agency plans to put out vaccination data for individual towns to help school and child care officials make decisions, Chan said.
In places where community transmission is low, kids can remove face masks indoors, he said. As community transmission increases, however, schools could start by recommending face masks, he said.
“Public health never likes to require or mandate something that you can get by voluntary compliance,” he said.
Chan said exceptions should be made for people with health conditions that make it difficult to wear face masks for a prolonged period of time.
“And that should be done without stigmatizing the individual,” he said. “Stigmatization can go both ways, people choosing to wear face masks and people not able to wear face masks.”
The CDC outlines nine recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools and child care centers:
• Promote vaccination.
• Face mask use.
• Physical distancing.
• Screening testing (recommended for K-12 schools but not child care).
• Increase ventilation.
• Teach hand washing and respiratory etiquette.
• Stay home when sick and get tested if you have viral symptoms.
• Contact tracing with isolation.
• Cleaning and disinfection.
Chan said quarantining of entire classrooms is no longer recommended if one student gets sick, but schools should notify the state public health division. Close household contacts are required to quarantine, but others should self-monitor for symptoms.
Once vaccines are available to younger children, Chan said, he expects mitigation measures can be pulled back.
After 18 months, he said, “Everybody is very tired of this pandemic and wants it to be over.”
— Shawne K. Wickham