Americans have reached consensus on a single goal: children must return to classrooms. Yet, as the Delta variant has surged, policymakers across the country have abandoned measures to protect unvaccinated children from COVID-19. Months after a withering debate on the best way to open schools, only 12 states have school mask mandates while 9 have banned them. In Florida, Gov. DeSantis signed an executive order prohibiting mask mandates in schools, and the State Board of Education threatened to withhold state funding from districts that required masking in defiance of his prohibition. Several governors, including Tennessee’s Bill Lee, have issued orders allowing parents to opt out of local mandates.
Even in Vermont, a state lauded as a model for its approach to school reopening and vaccination rates, children have been an afterthought of the pandemic response. As a public health researcher, practitioner, and parent in Vermont, I’ve watched the state over the last year retreat from many of the lessons it initially offered for a country struggling to return children to classrooms.
Vermont reopened its schools on September 8, 2020 with robust, 41-page statewide guidance amid a mere 5 cases. State and school leaders called upon communities to come together to keep kids safe and in-school. When cases flared in late fall, Vermont Governor Phil Scott closed bars and instituted restrictions on social gatherings, travel, and sports. Keeping kids in school represented a central priority for the state, and leaders aligned its public health response to achieve this goal.
Yet, Vermont’s state leadership has set aside key elements of its success as it has prepared for the 2021-22 school year. Citing its high vaccination rates, the state bucked CDC and AAP masking guidance in its 1.5 page reopening memo recommending “light touch” mitigation measures in K-12 schools even as it in August registered the fastest growing epidemic in the U.S. State leaders recommended masking in children under 12 and in students 12 and older in schools with vaccination rates less than 80% but stopped short of mandating it. Absent in state plans were descriptions of the robust layered approach including effective ventilation that experts widely view as essential to reopening as the hyper-transmissible Delta variant spreads.
Vermont’s local control approach has left school leaders and unvaccinated children at the mercy of village political whims and expertise. School leaders struggle to make public rapidly changing conditions, and some report receiving threats from community members opposed to mask requirements. Schools in the country’s most vaccinated communities have adopted the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidance in full while the school board in Essex County, an area with vaccination rates more than 25% lower than the rest of the state, voted 5-0 against masking. As a result, some unvaccinated Vermont children will return to schools with more limited mitigation measures in place than what the CDC recommends in public indoor settings in counties with substantial or high transmission. Yet, the risk of a variant twice as transmissible as the wild-type virus is far greater this fall and therefore calls for redoubling mitigation strategies.
Gov. Scott is not the only governor hiding behind the state’s high vaccination rate and counterparts who have shown outright disregard for the health and education of children. Once criticized for instituting an outdoor masking mandate, Massachusetts Gov. Baker rejected calls from the Massachusetts Medical Society, Teachers’ Unions, and others for universal masking mandates in schools, leaving the onus of public health decision making on the state’s 404 individual school boards. New Hampshire Gov. Sununu signed a law banning vaccine mandates while eschewing calls for masks in schools.
These actions have come at the most dangerous moment for children in the pandemic. Children now account for nearly 1 in 5 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S, and pediatric Covid-19 hospitalizations have reached their pandemic record. Schools that have opened without mitigation measures in place now have sent thousands of students into quarantine within days, and staff shortages have forced others to close. Even as vaccines continue to protect against hospitalizations and death, mounting data highlights the imperative to employ robust strategies to protect children too young to be vaccinated.
It’s time to stop minimizing the risk of Covid-19 to children and debating minimalistic approaches to reopening schools. U.S. and state leadership must build on the best practices from Vermont and other states, rather than rationalizing policy choices that compromise the health and education of children mere weeks or months before they are eligible for vaccination. Heavily vaccinated states such as Vermont must once again lead by example and use all available tools to ensure a safe return to in-person education.
Returning children safely to classrooms must now be the central goal of the public health response. To this end, governors must institute indoor mask mandates—and restrict other activities as conditions dictate–to curb skyrocketing cases across communities. At the same time, governors must mandate robust school guidance that employs all evidence-based tools to keep kids healthy and in school, including universal masking, ventilation, testing, and controls on high-risk indoor activities, including lunches. States must also ensure that students with high-risk medical conditions have access to remote learning or other accommodations until they are eligible for vaccination.
Vermont has taught the country that it takes a village to bring children back to school during a pandemic, but now we must not leave villages to manage the pandemic on their own. Instead, the U.S. must center the health and education of its children in a unified public health response and create the conditions for a safe return to schools.