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Masking in schools: UW doctor speaks to parents’ concerns

Published: Aug. 24, 2021 at 10:21 AM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Many students and their parents are entering this new year cautiously, as the threat of COVID-19 looms. Dr. Jeff Pothof, UW Health’s Chief Quality Officer, said mask-wearing is of the utmost importance in any school.

If everyone is masked up and distanced by at least three feet, Dr. Pothof feels going to school in-person is safe. However, with many districts choosing to make masks optional he is concerned that spread of COVID-19 will become rampant in school settings, pulling kids back out of the classroom.

“I think it’s a high-risk situation that most of us as medical professionals would say is not something that we’re particularly comfortable with. We’d be hesitant to send our kids into that environment,” said Dr. Pothof.

He recommends children wear tightly fitted masks, pack extra masks for the school day in case one gets soiled and take social distancing seriously, even when outdoors. Masks should also be worn inside school buses or during carpools to school.

“I think a lot of it is talking to your kids. Not scaring them, but at the same time letting them know if there’s individuals in the classroom that are unmasked, those are individuals that you should try to keep a healthy distance from. If you’re outside for recess don’t all huddle six inches away from each other,” said Dr. Pothof.

Another concern Dr. Pothof has heard circulating is that mask wearing could impact a child’s social and emotional development. He says when you review studies conducted on this, children performed better than adults in identifying emotions through just someone’s eyes.

“What they conclude is that although there may be a small loss in fidelity in interpreting what people are trying to communicate with masks on, the short period of time in grand scheme of things that kids are in school likely does not at all contribute to worsening developmental delay.”

In a similar vein, parents have also expressed concerns after hearing that masks could be physically harmful to children by restricting their breathing or causing CO2 poisoning.

Dr. Pothof said that is not true. Oxygen and CO2 molecules are so small that they flow easily through a mask. Masks are made to block respiratory droplets, which may contain COVID-19.

Another incentive to mask-up, Dr. Pothof says, is to avoid mass quarantines following exposure to the virus. In most districts, if a child tests positive and exposed others while unmasked, close contacts are also taken out of school for a minimum of 6 days.

“If instead that same scenario happens and that kid is masked, then the only person that is out is the kid who came down with COVID-19. All those other kids in the classroom get to stay in the classroom and keep learning for those 6 days that they would otherwise miss,” explained Dr. Pothof.

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