Public health expert: Don’t dump masks in schools Nov. 1

MILLIS, Mass. — On paper, Millis Middle/High School looks to be a shoo-in for an 80% vaccination rate by November 1. Data from the state Department of Public Health shows, as of September 21, 75% of 12- to 15-year-olds were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, as were 94% of 16- to 19-year-olds.

Unfortunately, that data does not neatly necessarily translate to the school level, said Superintendent Robert Mullaney.

“For the 16- to 19-year-old range, there’s probably a number of people counted in that age group that no longer go to high school,” Mullaney said. “For the younger grades, it could be some kids could be in private schools. And then we also have choice students in Millis.”

The bottom line: tallying up the number vaccinated, even in a rather small district such as Millis, will not be an easy nor instant task.

“It’s pretty labor-intensive, particularly for our nurses, who are out straight anyhow,” Mullaney said. “But we’ve already started work collecting vaccination information from families.”

Still, Mullaney said that does not necessarily mean, even if Millis Middle/High measures up to the 80% threshold, that it will offer a mask-less option come November 1.

“That’s still something that’s in discussion,” Mullaney said. “The school committee is considering that.”

Mullaney isn’t sure whether the 80% figure will come to be considered a ‘floor’ figure or whether it will also have to be tied to some other metric depending on the course of the next month of the pandemic – such as local incidence of COVID.

Alan Geller, MPH, RN, and a senior lecturer in Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, argues, no matter what criteria are used, November 1 is too soon to be thinking about unmasking school children.

“We still have 90 communities in Massachusetts where the teen vaccination rate is less than 60%,” he said.

And while daily positivity rates have inched down statewide, daily case counts remain high. Geller thinks it’s unwise to give up the protection afforded by masks before the holidays, especially given the surge that happened last year after Thanksgiving and Christmas. While he doesn’t expect anything like that this year, because so many adults and teens are vaccinated, many children won’t have that opportunity, thus making masks their only protection.

“We agree with Commissioner Reilly that at some point we need an off-ramp, we don’t want children to be wearing masks forever,” Geller said. “But when we’re at the point now where we have lots of cases in Massachusetts and no sign that they’re decreasing, that doesn’t seem to be the time to be using that argument.”

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