This will be the fourth year of academics in “Covid times.” Philadelphia public schools, serving a predominantly disadvantaged population, stayed remote for longer than city private schools and longer than other urban districts, like New York City.
We now know the costs of those extended closures have been very high — academically and socio-emotionally. The predictions of dire harm if schools opened were proven false. Much of this damage could have been avoided as we knew early on, based on experience in Europe and other cities, that schools could be opened safely long before they were in Philadelphia. The rationale for the deeply damaging decisions in Philadelphia were premised on the idea that harm was assured, even though the data said otherwise. In short, evidence was ignored in favor of messaging fear.
As this school year starts, public school kids in Philadelphia are again being held to a different standard than any other in Philadelphia and beyond. Children aged three to five years will be forced to mask all year long and those above five will have to mask when school starts, at the vaguely defined “after extended breaks” and when CDC levels indicate high transmission. They will be the only children having to do so; charter, parochial and private schools are mask-optional.
The rationale for masking three-, four-, and five-year-olds is for compliance with federal regulation; multiple states have successfully sued for an injunction of this requirement.
Unlike a decision that is complying with federal regulation, the guidance for public school kids over five years of age defies both federal and local public health guidance.
Both the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH) & CDC guidance are aligned in issuing a mask recommendation for schools but not a mask mandate, irrespective of community level of spread. This is also consistent with virtually every other large urban district which recommends masking, provides high quality masks to those who desire it, and welcomes both masked and unmasked children into schools.
As we approach the beginning of another school year, the school district should operate in accordance with public health guidance. It remains unclear why the district wrote its own Covid policy, a policy that was published with associated comments in a Google document which showed a complete absence of evidence-based decisions. The district may also be in violation with its own Policy 203, which charges the superintendent with implementing and operationalizing public health policy but does not fundamentally give the district the power to write its own policy.
In a more functional city, this would have led to questions, namely why did the district, which lacks the expertise in public health relative to CDC and PDPH, write its own health policy? If, as has been suggested by Dr. McDow, it is because that the school district has a diverse student population, a follow-up question should be “did PDPH write a health policy for the city of Philadelphia that did not consider a diverse population?”
In addition to these considerations, the data on community mask effectiveness is paltry, as eloquently summarized by Dr. Scott Basitis in his op-ed published by the Orange County Register. A pre-print from a study of two adjacent school districts in North Dakota also found that school-based mask mandates “have limited to no impact on the case rates of Covid-19 among K-12 students”. More locally, data from neighboring suburban districts were evaluated and no difference in infection risk was found when districts with a mask mandate were compared with those without during the Omicron surge. Those data led to suburban districts discontinuing their mask mandate.
As we approach yet another school year in Covid times, we need to acknowledge the reality that Covid will not go away, is not the only risk our students will face and be thoughtful and data driven in our decision. The seroprevalence data shows that most people will be infected by Covid regardless of mitigations; per CDC’s most recent estimate, up to 79.7 percent of children (six months to seventeen years) have been exposed to Covid. Indeed, most public health voices now acknowledge that reality which means strategies pivot towards detecting disease early in high risk groups to enable expedient treatment. We know that one-way masking with a well-fitting, high-quality mask is effective at providing the wearer benefit, regardless of the decision others make which lends further support to removing mandates.
Vaccination, as per the CDC, remains the most important and effective intervention to protect against severe disease and death. We know that there is a mental health crisis confronting our kids, and we know kids in Philly have added trauma from the gun violence crisis that continues to plague this city. We don’t know how masking impacts our kids’ experience in schools, there simply is no study on that. Masking only in public schools will not provide any benefit on a community level. In that context, mandating a behavior with no benefit is unethical.
There will undoubtedly be those who will claim a mantle of “safety,” one where there is no action too small when “safety” is considered, and say you must have a mask mandate. These are largely the same folks, claiming that same mantle of “safety”, who demanded continued remote education saying it would not cause harm. They could not have been more wrong. Covid infection came for everyone and the educational loss is borne predominantly by disadvantaged populations. Our prolonged public school closures undoubtedly worsened educational inequality in this city.
We must give our kids the same choice every adult has – namely if they want to mask with either decision respected in schools – a choice that aligns with both national and local public health guidance.
Priscilla Lo and Dr. Jessica Ackert are parents of rising seventh graders in the Philadelphia School District and have been advocating the full reopening of public schools in Philadelphia.