Nearly 60 local doctors are calling on school districts to reverse course and require students and staff to wear face masks while indoors and on campus to start the school year, as the COVID-19 delta variant continues to surge in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

On Thursday, the doctors sent a letter to Canon-McMillan, Trinity and McGuffey school districts voicing their support of mask mandates, saying masks work and are safe to wear.

“We know that they won’t prevent all COVID cases, but our goal is to reduce the number of cases and therefore overall spread, limiting shutdowns and lessening the number of kids and staff who need to quarantine,” the group said.

Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania State Education Association urged K-12 schools to follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance and require students and staff members to wear masks in school buildings. PSEA officials said mask-wearing is essential for in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year.

The CDC has called for universal masking in areas experiencing substantial or high rate of community transmission. The American Academy of Pediatrics and Association of American Medical Colleges also called for universal masking.

Earlier in the week, Peters Township School District’s school board changed its mask policy, requiring students and staff to wear masks when school begins.

Trinity and Canon-McMillan school boards met Thursday, but did not address their masking policies. Both districts encourage mask-wearing, but masks are not mandatory. Most school districts in Washington, Greene and Fayette counties have opted for optional mask-wearing in their health and safety plans.

But the doctors say wearing masks is an important protective measure to stop the transmission of the coronavirus.

The letter pointed to the importance of in-person education for students’ physical and mental health.

“We know that depression, anxiety and behavioral issues have increased in children over the course of the pandemic. This is due to the social isolation of quarantining and school shutdowns and not to mask wearing,” the letter said.

Doctors say schools did a good job of managing COVID-19 last year because of the mitigation measures they adopted, including masking and believe that now is not the time to stop wearing masks.

Dr. Mylaina Sherwood, a family medicine physician and mother of three children in Peters Township School District, said universal masking helped district students remain in the classroom last year, and shouldn’t be abandoned.

“As a community, we came together and universally masked last year. Peters Township was superior in keeping in-person learning the majority of the year, especially the elementary schools. With delta here, now is not the time to reduce mitigation efforts that are proven to work. Instead, we must double down on our efforts,” said Sherwood, noting the delta variant is 200% more contagious than the first COVID-19 virus.

The issue of wearing masks has become sharply divisive, as parents who oppose mandatory masking say it’s their decision to determine whether or not their child wears a mask.

But Dr. Rachel Schroer, a family medicine and urgent care physician who has two children under the age of 12 who are not eligible to get vaccinated, contends otherwise.

“The big discussion is mandate versus parent choice. My argument is masking as a precaution is not a parent choice issue, it’s a public health issue,” said Schroer.

Schroer worries about the increased risk that her children, who attend a K-8 school in Washington County where a majority of the school population hasn’t been able to get vaccinated, will get COVID-19 if students and staff aren’t wearing masks.

“What’s frustrating is, children under 12 are still unvaccinated and unprotected, and COVID is more contagious, and we’re going to send kids back with less protection,” said Schroer.

Physicians are also concerned about the disruption to students’ education if schools are forced to close or students end up quarantining because of exposure or illness.

“Online was not a successful experience for my children. It wasn’t good for them,” said Schroer. “There is a health risk and an education risk, and both can be avoided.”

Schroer pointed to schools in the South, which are shutting down as infection rates among students and staff members climb in the classrooms and communities.

“The South is showing us what is going to happen if we send our kids back to school without masks. We have the playbook, and the districts that choose not to do a mandate are choosing to ignore it,” said Schroer.

Dr. Michael Faust, a pediatrician at WHS Washington Pediatrics who was among those who signed the letter, said COVID-19’s impact on children has been less significant than on adults, but noted pediatric cases have jumped in recent weeks and children are getting sick.

Last week, more than 120,000 new coronavirus cases among children were reported, including a new one-day high of nearly 2,000. So far, more than 400 children have died from COVID-19.

The letter pointed out, while a majority of children who get coronavirus have a mild illness and many are asymptomatic, there are kids who end up with serious and long-term health issues.

Among them are multi-system organ disease, which can occur after mild cases and has affected more than 4,400 kids, and long-COVID, which results in respiratory, cardiac or neurologic complications and affects up to 10% of children.

Faust believes the minor inconvenience of wearing a mask outweighs risking transmission in schools.

“I’ve often joked that if kids wore masks, I’d be out of a job. It’s that simple. It’s a super cheap, harmless solution. I wish (the pandemic) was over too, but it’s not,” said Faust. “The idea of starting the school year in the middle of a pandemic, without masks, is imprudent.

“Let’s start school with masks on and see where we are in a month,” he added. “I think people need to remember back to last year when students were being educated at home, which was far from ideal. Masks are a minor inconvenience, but if wearing a mask provides lets kids stay in school and have a good school experience, it’s worth it.”

The letter also notes “kids are great transmitters of virus,” and pointed out that doctors worry about availability of staff and beds to treat heart attack, strokes, traumas and other non-COVID related illnesses if a bigger COVID-19 surge hits once school starts.

The letter states that, in addition to COVID cases, doctors predict a more severe respiratory virus and flu season, and that masks inhibit the spread of those viruses.

Currently, Washington County remains at a high level of community spread, while Greene and Fayette counties are in the substantial level.

The letter concludes, “We are all tired of wearing masks...but we are asking you to please make masks mandatory as school starts – as many in Southwestern Pennsylvania have already done – and then as the COVID case prevalence warrants. We are asking you to please help us keep our community safe during this difficult time.”

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