FAQ: What to Know About COVID, Masks, Kids and Schools in the DC Area

D.C.-area schools have mask mandates as COVID-19 cases surge during back-to-school season

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It’s back-to-school season, and it’s coming with a lot of extra anxiety as COVID-19 cases rise in the D.C. area.

Just as many families were starting to think about fall shopping lists — and maybe hoping for a relatively normal school year — COVID-19 case rates shot up, fueled by the highly contagious delta variant of the virus.

This surge has spurred educators and health officials to reconsider what actions should be taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 within schools — especially since kids under 12 aren't yet eligible to get vaccinated.

Now, parents have lots of questions about back-to-school, kids, COVID-19 and masks.

We spoke to Melissa Hawkins, director of undergraduate programs at American University's Department of Health Studies, to get answers.

Do masks work in schools?

Yes. Hawkins says there’s a lot of good, reliable data to show that masks work in schools.

“What we know about masks – they are a barrier that can help prevent transmission,” Hawkins said.

They work best if everyone is wearing one.

Will schools require masks for the 2021-2022 school year?

Yes, all D.C.-area public schools and many private schools will have mask mandates for now. Those mask mandates typically apply to all students, staff and visitors who are inside school buildings, but don't apply outside.

What are the safest masks for kids?

Cloth or medical masks will both help keep your child healthy, Hawkins said. The CDC recommends masks that have two layers of breathable, washable fabric.

Here are top factors to consider when choosing a face-covering:

  • Coverage: Make sure your child’s nose and chin are covered. That’s how you keep germs out.
  • Comfort: How does the fabric feel on skin, and are the fasteners causing any irritation? Before school starts, test-drive masks for an extended period. Cotton is a good choice for many.
  • Fit: The mask should be snug on your child’s face, and the best ones have a nose wire, the CDC says. Look for kid-sized masks if needed.

Masks such as the N95, which filter small particles out of the air, likely aren’t necessary for school use, Hawkins said.

How do I stop my child's mask from getting dirty?

Hawkins suggests taking steps to make sure masks stay clean. Wash them regularly, and make sure you don and remove them correctly.

The most sanitary way to put on and take off a mask is by only touching the ear fasteners — keep your fingers away from the cloth that covers your mouth, nose and chin, Hawkins says.

It may be helpful to practice with your kids, who would likely be taking off masks at school for meals or outdoor recess.

And remind kids that masks are not something to be shared.

“Your mask is your mask,” Hawkins said.

Why are schools requiring masks?

Many schools cited rising COVID-19 infections rates when announcing their mask policies for the fall.

Community spread is high or substantial throughout the D.C. area, meaning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

The delta variant of the virus, which is more contagious, also means we need to use more layers of protection, the CDC said.

“Delta is really a game-changer for where we were, even a couple of months ago,” Hawkins said.

When Virginia announced a statewide school mask policy, Health Commissioner Dr. Norm Oliver said in a statement: "We know that masking is an effective tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, particularly among children who are not yet eligible for vaccination. As cases rise in our communities, universal masking and other mitigation measures will ensure our schools continue to be the safest place for Virginia’s children."

When will the COVID vaccine be available for kids under age 12?

Emergency approval for COVID-19 vaccines in children younger than 12 could come in early to midwinter, a Food and Drug Administration official said in mid-July.

How can schools and communities keep kids healthy in the COVID-19 pandemic?

To protect kids and their families from the virus, schools should "layer" strategies, Hawkins said. That means using many mitigation efforts, including masking, social distancing and vaccinations.

For kids under 12, who can't get vaccinated yet, it's important that older people around them are vaccinated.

“If we can really support layering strategies, then we’re just going to be in a stronger position for the rest of the year," Hawkins said.

What does the CDC say about masks in schools?

The CDC endorses mask-wearing when inside school buildings, especially when physical distancing isn’t possible.

“When teachers, staff, and students consistently and correctly wear a mask, they protect others as well as themselves,” the CDC says.

Masks usually aren’t necessary outdoors, unless you’re in a crowd.

In addition to a mask, what supplies do I need for school in a pandemic?

A reusable water bottle, hand sanitizer and cleansing wipes are all good things to keep on hand.

Are schools requiring masks in the D.C. area?

Yes — here's a round-up of school mask policies:

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