CDC's new mask guidance in schools raises bullying concerns among experts, parents

·7 min read

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quietly unveiled new guidance for schools on Friday that says students and staff who are vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer need to wear a mask indoors. Those who are unvaccinated and over the age of 2 should still wear a mask, the CDC says.

"Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic," the CDC says in the guidance. "Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports."

Reactions were swift — and varied — on social media. "How do schools reasonably sort unvaccinated and vaccinated students and staff?! This is madness. Just keep mask-wearing policies in place," one person wrote on Twitter. "Neat! I'm gonna keep my mask on though," someone else said.

Others expressed concern about how this can affect kids socially. "What does this mean for elementary schools? Will this lead to an uptick in bullying complaints/volatility in buildings? How do we police this all day?" an education attorney wrote. 

Plenty of parents have concerns too. "I am personally conflicted about not requiring kids to wear masks if they are vaccinated," Matthew Parks, a father of three, tells Yahoo Life. "I am hopeful that this will motivate more parents to vaccinate their children and bring us closer to mitigating this disease." But, Parks, who lives in Lewes, Del., says, he's worried "that parents may lie about their children’s immune status and that unvaccinated children may become targeted." Parks says he's also worried that teachers will have trouble enforcing the masking of unvaccinated children. "Overall, I feel reassured that we are getting closer to our normal lives and that this is a step in the right direction, but I think it would be naive for us not to preemptively expect these potential problems," he says.

Dr. Rosemary Olivero, a parent and pediatric infectious disease physician at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., tells Yahoo Life that her family has discussed vaccinations and medical decisions "openly" with her children and that she does not have "immediate reservations" about the CDC's decision. "However, I understand that it is more difficult for children to adhere to mask-wearing if teachers, parents and peers are not also wearing masks," she says. "This can lead to defiance and opposition, which will need to be planned for."

Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., who has several school-age children, tells Yahoo Life that he's "not so worried" about the safety of younger children who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. "They are not as likely to get severely sick," he explains. However, Ganjian adds, it's up to schools to "have good policies in place," including having good ventilation and encouraging unvaccinated children to wear masks. 

But bullying — either targeted at kids who wear a mask or those who don't — is a very real concern, Dr. Robert Keder, a pediatrician who specializes in developmental behavior at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. "We see that adults are bullying each other over wearing masks or not," he says, adding that the problem could be particularly problematic in elementary and middle schools, where some kids are eligible to be vaccinated while others are not. 

"Children will always find ways to bully other children, and statistics show that the number one way in which they get bullied is by the way they look," clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Life. "So, with that in mind, we can expect kids to get bullied both for wearing and not wearing a mask."

It can also be tricky among children who choose to wear a mask but are eligible to get vaccinated, Keder says. "We need to teach kids that wearing a mask, even if you choose to but don't 'have to,' is OK," he says. "People might be doing it for reasons that aren't obvious — they haven't been vaccinated, they're immunocompromised or they have someone at home who is sick."

While bullying can only be prevented so much, Melissa Santos, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and division chief of pediatric psychology at Connecticut Children's, tells Yahoo Life that a lot of the bullying risk comes down to the policies that schools have in place. "The key for schools with masks/no masks is having a consistent policy including having clear rules or expectations for what occurs if someone is bullied — much like they should have for other kinds of bullying," she says. "No tolerance for bullying should extend to masks."

If you have concerns about your child being bullied over mask usage, experts recommend having a talk with the child. "Talk to them about what we know about COVID-19, what we have control over, and that we're all trying to help in our own way," he says. "You can say that it's hard, because we have no control over other people's behavior, but we have choices about how we as a family can be safe and how we can wear our masks and wash our own hands."

If your child is older, Mayer suggests being frank about why kids bully. "Bullies act because there is something damaged in their life right now. It's not you that is damaged, weird, different or wrong," he recommends saying. "Reinforce that it is the parents' decision to have them wear or not wear a mask ... not the bully. You are following your parents' safety actions," he says.

Bullying concerns aside, infectious disease experts and organizations that represent teachers applaud the CDC's move. "I do not think vaccinated teachers or students need to wear masks," infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. "The science is clear: Being fully vaccinated is protection against COVID-19. Schools need to recognize that a vaccinated individual does not pose a threat to others, and others do not pose a threat to them."

Becky Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association, tells Yahoo Life in a statement that the CDC's latest guidance "provides an important roadmap for reducing the risk of COVID-19 in schools," adding that "it is up to all of us in communities across the country to make it possible for all school buildings to be fully open, to stay open, and for all students, staff and families to remain healthy." That, she says, includes vaccinations. "Everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated should get their COVID-19 vaccination," Pringle says. "This is the most important thing we can do to protect ourselves and each other, and especially to protect those who cannot yet be vaccinated, including children under 12."

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, tells Yahoo Life that the CDC's guidance, "makes clear that masking is important in the absence of vaccination."

Still, there are a lot of questions about how, exactly, this is going to work in schools and if it's even the safest approach, especially when younger children are involved. "As the majority of unvaccinated persons in the U.S. are children, we are concerned for COVID outbreaks in places where children gather indoors for extended periods of time," Olivero says. "For this reason, completely getting rid of masks in schools may be very risky for the health of children as well as the evolution of novel variants."

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