ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — In just a few weeks, children across Central Florida will be headed back to class for in-person learning.
While all Central Florida school districts have voted to make masks optional for the coming year, the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending that everyone over the age of 2 wear masks when they go back to class to protect against COVID-19 and the highly infectious Delta variant.
The President of the Florida Chapter of the AAP, Dr. Lisa Gwynn, said the scientific community is in agreement, the best way to protect kids and adults from getting sick is to wear masks. Without them, people will get sick, they’ll be hospitalized and the pandemic will continue to stretch out even longer, Gwynn said.
“There are so many reasons why I want to send them back to school. But are those things worth the health risks?” said Elizabeth Sheagren, an Orange County Public Schools parent.
Sheagren was feeling excited about sending her two oldest kids, Vivian and Rosie Edsall, back to school in a few weeks. But with rising case numbers and OCPS making masks optional, she’s not sure she’ll send them back in person at all.
“The masks were what was helping me feel comfortable sending my kids back to school," Sheagren said. "I think this is an educational environment, we should be encouraging our kids to listen to science."
The CDC recommends that unvaccinated children and adults should continue to wear masks when school starts back up.
Now, the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending that everyone aged 2 and up should wear masks regardless of vaccination status, to stop further spread.
But Gwynn said she doesn’t think it’ll be enough to convince school and state leaders to change their mask policies.
“We know what’s best, we know what saves lives, we know what protects kids and it isn’t very complicated," she said. "If you cover your face, you’re going to be safe. And if you don’t, then you run the risk of your child contracting the virus. And I will tell you, the Delta variant is extremely infectious."
While it’s unlikely that children will die or be hospitalized from the Delta variant, Gwynn said she’s seeing children show long-haul COVID issues, including thyroid and blood disorders. But mask wearing and getting vaccinated can help prevent that, she said.
Making masks optional in schools, especially for children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated, will be problematic, according to Gwynn.
“When people don’t wear masks, infection rates rise," Gwynn said. "So it is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately we are in the middle of this, our state isn’t necessarily following suit with what is recommended in terms of mask wearing. And so we’re just going to have to do our best to keep kids safe."
Sheagren said she wants to see school districts and the state put politics aside and put children’s safety first by revisiting the mask policies following the AAP’s recommendations.
Without masks, she said she may not be comfortable sending her kids back to school in-person, no matter how much she and her kids would like to.
“It’s frustrating that I’m feeling like I have to make that sacrifice, but other people aren’t willing to make the sacrifice of keeping masks for just a little bit longer,” Sheagren said.
Spectrum News 13 reached out to OCPS officials to see if the district or school board would be revisiting its mask policy following the American Academy of Pediatrics's recommendation.
They responded with the following statement:
The use of face coverings on school campuses will remain in place through August 2. We are waiting for any state and/or local guidance on new mandates requiring the use of face coverings. School Board Policy EBBA, authorizes the Superintendent to implement more restrictive face covering requirements in the event the CDC or other governmental entities issue such guidance. We continue to work closely with the Florida Department of Health in Orange County and local officials as we monitor COVID-19 cases in the county and will continue reporting any new cases on the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.