Editorial: Bring the masks back

It used to be that whether or not to call a snow day was the toughest job facing Maine school superintendents. Enter COVID-19, making a season of early-morning blizzards seem like paradise compared to a pandemic.

Now it is all but certain that Hancock County students will return to school full time, in person this fall. The question with which school boards are now grappling is whether students and staff will be masked. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says they should, regardless of vaccination status or community transmission rates. That is a recommendation, not a rule, complicating matters for local school administrators who will most certainly take the heat whatever direction they choose.

The state, for now at least, is following the feds. Last week, the Mills administration updated its face covering guidance, echoing the school recommendation and also asking that everyone mask in indoor, public settings in areas with substantial or high transmission levels.

That leaves schools to be the bad guys. They will set the rules based on recommendations that are stricter for them than for other areas of public life.

Sans mandate, caution must prevail. Masking should be required in schools this fall.

As we learned last year, kids need to be in school. The physical building with their teacher in front of them and peers all around. To do that means bringing together large groups of unvaccinated people. There is not yet an approved vaccine for children under 12.

Then there is the Delta variant, not yet the dominant strain in Maine but likely so in time. The CDC reports vaccinated people with breakthrough infections may be as contagious as unvaccinated people.

Thus far, children have been less susceptible to the worst effects of COVID-19. Severe illness or death are rare. Kids represent just a tiny sliver of hospitalizations in the U.S.

Still, if there’s a simple (if annoying) step we can take to further protect them and prevent disruptions to their education, we should take it. Universal masking in schools eliminates the need to use the honor system or other means to encourage masking among the unvaccinated. It can help prevent outbreaks that might again necessitate a return to remote learning. And it’s a two-ply insurance policy against a virus that might change again, posing new threats.

When it comes to kids, better to err on the side of safety — even if time may prove us overzealous.

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