03:09 - Source: CNN
School superintendent says his district won't comply with Republican governor's executive order on masks
CNN  — 

My kids were out of physical school Thursday for a predicted snowfall that never came. Their brief return to in-home education via Zoom was a jolt of bad memories, technical difficulties, frustrated learners and distracted parenting. A prolonged return to virtual school would be a disaster, at least in my house.

It’s no wonder the idea of giving parents the power to keep their kids in school has emerged as a potent political issue.

Mask politics. In Virginia, districts are split on newly inaugurated Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s demand by executive order that parents have the option to send their kids to school unmasked.

While some school districts have acquiesced to the governor’s authority, several urban districts in Northern Virginia and Richmond have said they will ignore it and continue to follow guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which calls for universal masking in schools. The fight is going to court.

RELATED: Read this story about Supreme Court justices and their personal masking decisions.

Youngkin made the announcement even as case rates in Virginia appeared to hit record levels during the Omicron surge.

While Youngkin is pushing mask-optional schooling, President Joe Biden is pushing masks into communities, making 400 million N95 masks available to Americans at pharmacies and community health centers starting next week, part of his strategy to rein in the Covid-19 surge driven by the Omicron variant.

RELATED: CDC updated its mask guidance. Here’s what you need to know.

It was with masks in schools in mind that my ears perked up at something Erin Bromage, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, told CNN’s Victor Blackwell and Alisyn Camerota during an appearance Wednesday on CNN.

They asked about the use of N95 masks by kids over the age of 2 in public places.

Bromage said he doesn’t like the idea.

“Masking, especially with N95s, should go to people that are higher at risk for their own health, higher at risk because of infection rather than everybody have one.”

One reason for an evolution on kids and masks. I followed up with Bromage on Thursday and he sent a thoughtful response about how his views on masks in schools have changed.

Here’s most of that email about his new thinking:

My position on this has evolved over the past 6 months as vaccines have become available for the youngest age groups.

Schools should be moving toward masks coming off as the community infection numbers drop. Children are the least likely to have poor outcomes from infection, they have the opportunity to be vaccinated, and as long as the parent retains the right to have their children mask if they choose, then we should be moving to a situation where masks are optional. There are just too many negative tradeoffs in socialization and learning when children do not get to see faces and expressions.

It will mean that we will have to fortify protections on teachers and staff with vulnerabilities; they will need better masks. Schools must also invest in improving classroom ventilation and filtration; a benefit that goes beyond the pandemic.

We have spent too much time and effort applying the strictest measures to the least vulnerable population. We should be targeting those measures to the group of people that is most negatively affected by COVID.

I asked Bromage for his thoughts on what level of community transmission should allow for unmasking kids in school, and he said it would have to be a local decision.

“Each school, and the region they are drawing their students, will be unique,” he wrote. “But if we think it’s OK to have bars, restaurants, and indoor theater and concerts going and unmasked, we should also be doing it for our children.”

The official guidance is still to mask kids in school. It’s important to note here that in addition to the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends universal masking for kids in school.

“Face masks are a simple, proven tool to help stop the spread of the virus to students unable to get the vaccine or to those who may have a condition that puts them at higher risk of getting sick even if they have been vaccinated,” according to the academy’s recommendations for parents.

Updated CDC guidance notes that “clear masks or cloth masks with a clear plastic panel” may be more helpful for certain groups such as young children or those learning to read.

Community transmission is still high. While overall Covid-19 case numbers have dropped nationally in recent days, and markedly in places like New Jersey and other Northeastern states, the Omicron variant is still driving a massive wave of infections.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that there were nearly 1 million child Covid-19 cases reported for the week ending January 13. That’s more than 21% of the country’s weekly reported Covid-19 cases.

But to Bromage’s point, between 0.1% and 1.5% of kids who tested positive for Covid-19 required hospitalization in 24 states reporting that data, according to the academy.

Further, 0.02% or less of all child Covid-19 cases resulted in death, according to the organization’s data.

As for long-term issues of socialization and development for kids who encounter people with masks, there is some research that refutes these concerns, as CNN’s Kristen Rogers has written.

The assumption, however, is that the masks will ultimately come off.

“I think once masks are gone or almost gone, whatever impact it has, we’ll quickly recover,” said Dr. Hugh Bases, a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone Health, told Rogers.

The question is how long it will take to get there.

In other Covid-19 news

COVIDtests.gov is live. The US government launched a new website via the US Postal Service for every American household to order four Covid-19 tests. Read more.

The tests should begin shipping in late January, according to the site.

Some hiccups. CNN asked readers for input about the site, and many who responded said it was easy to use and efficient. But it was not flawless for everyone. Some readers said that when they had tried to use the site, they were told that tests had already been ordered for their addresses so their requests could not be completed. Some live in apartment buildings, but others said they are in private residences and no one else in the household had used the site.

Separately, Americans with private health insurance can order tests online or in stores and have them paid for at the time of purchase or get reimbursed by submitting claims to their insurers, thanks to a different White House program.