Doctors tell lawmakers: Kids need masks at school

Surging Delta variant changes September picture in Mass.

BOSTON — Children in grades K-6 in Massachusetts should return to school wearing masks while indoors -- that is the recommendation from several doctors testifying before a legislative oversight committee Monday.

“What we did learn is that masking does work,” said panelist Dr. Vincent Chaing, the Chief Medical Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Masking in schools, certainly until we can ensure that we’ve reached a critical mass of children, it’s almost a no-brainer.”

Dr. Benjamin Linas, an infectious disease specialist at Boston Medical Center, also recommended mask use when the new school year starts for younger children, as well as other measures proven to keep COVID-19 at bay such as distancing three feet and improving ventilation and circulation.

However, Linas said schools can dispense with the things that don’t work or don’t do any good, such as mandating mask use outdoors, deep cleaning, quarantining ‘contaminated’ objects, such as books, and routinely testing those showing no symptoms.

All medical experts appearing at the hearing agreed that a school year as normal as possible, given the circumstances, was vital to the emotional and mental well-being of Massachusetts children.

The hearing, chaired by Cambridge Representative Marjorie Decker, met at the Museum of Science in Boston in anticipation of the approval sometime in fall or early winter of a COVID-19 vaccine for those under 12-years-old.

When that happens, Health and Human Services Secretary Mary Lou Sudders said the state will be ready to set up school-based clinics, as well as expand the distribution of vaccines to pediatric offices. And it is in pediatric offices that many parents will likely feel most comfortable having their children get vaccinated, added Dr. Lloyd Fisher, the president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Fisher was one of several medical experts who testified about the different challenges faced in vaccinating small children versus adults and adolescents. Among them, the fact the process might coincide with cold and flu season, and that could create a logjam at some doctor’s offices.

As for when approval might happen, experts could only speculate. But they said it will likely be in three waves and almost certainly not before the start of the school year.

At the earliest, approval for children between 5- and 11-years-old might happen sometime in October, with the youngest children between 6-months-old to 2-years-old, possibly not seeing approval until sometime early next year.

One agency that didn’t send a representative to the hearing was the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE. Rep. Decker invited DESE, she said, but they declined to attend. This left her baffled, she said.

“We are sending thousands and thousands of children back to school in the fall who haven’t been to school in a year and a half and we have a Delta variant very very quickly becoming far more contagious than previous variants,” Decker said. “And so I can assure you that parents and educators across the state are sitting on edge and really, quite honestly, deserve to hear from DESE.”