What's the risk of infection without masks in the classroom?

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Improving COVID-19 metrics have caused school districts across North Carolina to again weigh the risks of removing mask mandates.

The push to remove masks gained support from Gov. Roy Cooper last week alongside top state health officials.

"This pandemic has been difficult for all of us. It's been particularly tough on parents, teachers and schoolchildren. It's time to focus on getting our children a good education and improving our schools. No matter how you feel about masks," Cooper said during a news conference on Thursday.

Some education advocates such as the Carolina Teacher Alliance have been pushing to make masks optional for a while.

"We've heard from a lot of our teachers that it makes it very difficult to teach with a mask, especially teaching the younger kids who really do need to see the teacher's facial expressions," said Amy Marshall, the president of the Carolina Teacher Alliance. "Our members are really tired of the mask mandate."

Though metrics are improving, some health experts question whether all areas of the state are ready to ditch the mask.

"I would prefer that districts wait a little bit longer, or at least give their population notice if it is coming so they can make sure to find that time to get their child vaccinated if they wanted to," said Julie Swann, a North Carolina State University professor.

Swann is part of a team that has studied COVID-19's effect in classrooms throughout the pandemic.

In August, her team's models predicted without any intervention that 70% of susceptible children could become infected during the first semester.

"Even for those of us who study COVID-19, the rapid spread in school was a little bit surprising," Swann told ABC11 in August.

The study found that 315 out of 500 elementary students could catch COVID-19 if no safety measures are implemented.

Since this study, 5- to 11-year-olds have become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, which has reduced risk in elementary schools.

"The risk is lower than what it was in August, however, when you look at the percentage of children who are fully up to date on vaccinations for COVID-19, it's still fairly low, especially in the younger populations that have not had access to the vaccine," Swann said.

Only one out of every four children ages 5-11 years old is partially vaccinated across North Carolina. Around half of the children who are 12-17 years old are partially vaccinated, according to data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Swann said current models show infections will likely be double in schools with voluntary masks versus those with mandates.

She explained that predicting the full level of risk is difficult because it's hard to know for sure how many students have protection (either through past infection or vaccination) and how long that protection lasts.

"What I would say is that schools may want to be cautious when thinking about opening and try to watch what's happening in some of the other schools and other places that have already done so. And particularly think about this in communities where vaccination rate is lower, or risks are higher," Swann said.

The ABC Science Collaborative, a group of experts that have offered guidance to schools throughout the pandemic, gave a presentation last Monday on things districts should consider going forward.

The group did not weigh in on whether schools should make masks optional but did point to data showing mask mandates reduced secondary transmission by 70-80%.

The team's data also revealed the potential impact on the community. In a hypothetical situation, schools without mask mandates had the potential to cause seven times more infections in the community per week and seven times more secondary infections within schools.

Swann said because of the community impact these decisions will likely have, district leaders, need to weigh multiple factors.

"I encourage them to look at vaccination rates. I encourage them to look at hospitalization rates. You need to give parents enough time to get the vaccine and for it to be effective so that several weeks and then keep other interventions in place, like greater ventilation, greater distancing, greater use of outdoor spaces, all of those kinds of things can help," she said.

These are all factors Wake County School Board leaders will likely be weighing Tuesday afternoon when they meet to discuss when to make masks optional.

Marshall said the Carolina Teacher Alliance is hoping the Wake County School Board makes masks optional immediately or beginning Friday. Raleigh and Wake County's mask mandate expires on Friday.

"We really hope they just don't drag this out beyond Friday. I think that really would not be in anyone's best interest to continue to do that," Marshall said.
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