Boston-area doctors urge making masks in schools optional

BOSTON — Boston-area infectious disease specialists are urging public health leaders and school officials to make masks optional for students and in a state where they are currently mandated in schools.

Tufts Medical Center epidemiologist Shira Doron, Harvard Medical School professor Westyn Branch-Elliman, and Boston Medical Center infectious disease management director Elissa Perkins wrote the opinion piece in the Washington Post, Schools can now safely make masks optional with the CDC’s new guidelines.

“Our children have sacrificed a lot to protect us,” the doctors wrote. “Now it’s time for us to give them their childhood back.”

As the omicron variant wanes and with the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine in preventing severe illness and death, Doron recommends “one-way masking, emphasizing personal choice regarding self-protection and supporting those who choose to remain masked.”

The article follows new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month, stating respirators such as N95 masks protect against COVID-19 better than surgical and cloth masks.

“Respirators and other high-quality masks are highly effective at protecting their wearers, regardless of what people around them are doing,” the doctors wrote. “That makes the old mantra ‘my mask protects you and your mask protects me’ obsolete. As a result, schools can finally safely make masks optional for students and staff.”

“If we’re shifting toward that you’re-protecting-yourself mode, then that’s really the first step toward the next phase of the pandemic, where we think about how to drop all the restrictions,” Doron explained to Boston 25 News by Zoom Wednesday, “while still acknowledging that the virus is never going away and there will always be people at higher risk.”

Doron, who admits she is not a mental health expert, said, as a mother and friend, she has seen damaging effects from constant mask-wearing.

“People are at end of their rope with children with sensory disorders, children with hearing disorders, children with language learning difficulties,” Doron said. “They’re feeling it. They’re feeling this is impairing their education and growth.”

Silent lunches, cancelled gym and recess due to “increased exhalation,” and punishment for improper mask-wearing are contributing to the dire mental health toll the pandemic is taking on children, Doron said.

“Those kinds of things are hard as a mom, hard to watch,” Doron said. “And I’m totally fine to do it if it’s saving lives. But I don’t think that it is anymore.”

Doron acknowledged the need for respirators presents a supply challenge and an equity issue, given the increased expense of higher-quality masks. She said the Biden administration’s commitment to distribute 400 million respirators is helpful, but such efforts will need to continue.

Doron told Boston 25 News her message in the Washington Post has been manipulated by some as a political tool to push their mask agendas.

She has also received backlash by some who insist it’s not the time to discuss masking in schools.

“If the end of the omicron wave is not the time to educate the public about how to protect themselves so we can move forward into a mask-optional phase, then what is?” Doron asked.