Iowa doctor: State should require masks in schools this fall

A graduating student wears at mask during commencement for Roosevelt High School students in Des Moines on June 20, 2020. (Photo by Des Moines Public Schools)

As a physician in our community, I am very concerned about the recent guidelines for Return to Learning put forth by the State of Iowa Department of Education that fail to recommend that schools require face masks for all students and staff.

There are a few facts that we know:

  1. Personal use of masks will decrease the spread of COVID infection.
  2. There are no proven treatments or vaccines as of today.
  3. The economy cannot function as we know it without school being in-person.

School districts are in the midst of the difficult task of holding meetings to discuss various scenarios of hybrid learning, distancing at school, mass transportation, shared lunch spaces, recesses, and use of masks. I am aware that each of these issues poses a logistical challenge; put together they almost seem to be insurmountable obstacles.

Broad structural changes such as half days, alternatives days, and staggered busing schedules are not conducive to parents being able to work. Despite these measures, any positive cases will necessitate consideration for self-isolation of contacts for 14 days which entails another layer of distance learning alternatives for those classrooms where children are exposed.

That classroom’s teacher may need to isolate from student contact for 14 days. If said teacher has a school-aged child in another classroom, he or she will be unable to teach as well. Many parents will be forced to miss work for weeks at a time. It is a tremendous amount of instability to be in and out of classrooms for sporadic and ill-defined durations throughout the academic year.

The discussion we should be having centers on what we know does work: masks. Based on a very large review of 44 studies involving 25,000 patients, the use of masks can reduce the risk of viral transmission by over 80%.

It is an extraordinarily minor behavioral adjustment for the kids and is easily enforceable by teachers: Wear a mask. Schools can resume a normal schedule and can continue in-person classes even in the event of a positive case if every child has worn a mask at school.

Obviously, this won’t solve every challenge such as lunchtime and recess. However if we don’t mandate masks in school, the reality is that one single positive case will require schools to implement changes that force enormous disruptions to the community.

Obviously nobody “wants” to be forced to wear a mask, but it is our duty to press for this minor change in culture. It is our duty because we are medical professionals and educators and leaders, and we have the responsibility to effect collective change in our community. Just as the safety of my patients is my primary concern, I know that our educator leaders take utmost responsibility for the safety of their students and their teachers.

As a parent of young children, I remember not long ago that none of my kids wanted to wear shoes or coats when I told them. We ask our children to do what is in their best interest, and they accept that we love them and must obey us. Masks and face shields are no different.

Do what is right, not what is popular. We must model that which we ask of them. The beauty of this is that what is right can also be what is popular. Had the public messaging throughout our country consisted of a barrage of public service announcements lauding the use of masks, the cultural shift toward empathy and caring for one another would be the popular thing to do. One might even say it is the patriotic thing to do.

If we, as a society, are unable to convince people to wear masks in public, the least we can do is ensure a safe school environment for all students. School administrators have the authority to say, “If you value your child’s education, if you value your child’s health, if you value your teachers, if you value my child’s life, then you will send your child to school with a mask.”

Or we can say it’s too hard and throw our hands up and hope for the best.