How much longer will our education institutions ignore science?
About the author: Heather Alfano is an ICU nurse in Los Angeles and mother of three school-aged children.
As an ICU nurse and advocate for reopening public schools, I’m frequently contacted by local parents with questions and concerns regarding schools’ COVID protocols. Specifically, whether children should be required to wear masks while outdoors.
When making decisions for unvaccinated children, we must always consider risk in the context. Between March 1st and December 12th, 2020, the virus killed 178 American children under the age of 18. By comparison, 188 children died of the flu virus during the 2019-20 flu season. Kids are inarguably at low risk for the COVID virus.
Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest in the nation, announced this week that it will require masks in the fall. Districts throughout the state are likely to follow suit, and many parents feel defeated. Not to mention, LAUSD’s announcement made no distinction between indoor and outdoor settings. The World Health Organization recommends against masking children during outdoor exercise, including “running, jumping or playing on the playground,” concerned that masks could “compromise their breathing,” yet local county government, school districts, and many summer camps have yet to lift outdoor mask mandates for kids.
According to the CDC, a mask of any kind is not safe or effective once wet, whether from water, sweat or heavy breathing. Moisture not only decreases the wearer’s oxygen availability by 20%, but also renders a mask completely useless. When a person exhales in a wet mask, it forces the exhalation out of the edges of the mask at a stronger force, causing aerosolization, which is how COVID-19 is spread.
Recently, I heard a story about a local student that was particularly concerning to me. During a field trip to tide pools in Malibu, a child’s mask was splashed with ocean water and he alerted the teacher. The teacher rinsed the mask with fresh water from a water bottle and asked the student to place the wet mask back on his face. This intervention proved problematic in two ways – decreased oxygen availability to the wearer and increased aerosolization to those around him. More troubling was the teacher’s lack of training on proper mask protocol.
Another episode of confusion occurred at a local school when a child overheated at P.E. and felt dizzy. He was promptly sent to the nurse’s office and instructed to put on a second mask. His mother was called to pick him up and told he could not return to school without a negative COVID test. Not only was this response counterintuitive to the needs of the child in the moment, but it required a local pediatrician’s office to administer unnecessary testing and follow up with an asymptomatic child. When a person overheats during exercise, taking a mask break and increasing their oxygen supply is the proper response. Adding a second mask is not only ineffective, but also dangerous.
As a healthcare provider, I am proud to partner with a local pediatrician to offer education on safe and effective mask use and management to our schools. But as a parent, it should not be my responsibility to provide studies showing why our children don’t need to wear masks outside. It should be the responsibility of our local government and school districts to show why they continue to require them.
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