Across the country, states are beginning to lift universal mask mandates, including in schools. However, COVID-19 still poses a risk for many families, especially for children too young to be vaccinated. What is a parent to do?
Dr. Salwa Sulieman, an infectious disease specialist at Nemours Children’s Hospital, Delaware and a mom of three suggests looking to the numbers to help you make a decision about whether to continue wearing a mask, despite the lifted mandates.
Look at the Numbers
“I base masking recommendations on what the numbers in the community are doing. I tend to think about incidence of COVID-19 infection per 100,000 persons, which you can find on most state health department websites,” says Dr. Sulieman.
Dr. Sulieman recommends considering optional masking when your state begins reporting an incidence rate of 50-100 cases per 100,000 persons. When your state gets to less than 10 per 100,000, there’s very little COVID-19 infection in the community and masks can safely come off.
Another metric to reference is PCR positivity rates, which is the number of positive cases among those tested in a community or state. When the positivity rate is below 5%, optional masking is something to consider.
As a parent, if your state or school district is already making masking optional, think about who is in your household and who is high risk, and look to those numbers to help your family make a decision about continuing to mask.
What if a Child Is Worried About Being Teased?
For some families who have high-risk relatives or children with chronic conditions, the decision to keep wearing a mask is an easy one. But what can a parent do if their child is teased for continuing to wear a mask when most kids and teachers are no longer required to do so?
Dr. Zach Radcliff, a pediatric psychologist at Nemours Children’s Health, encourages an open dialogue with children to help them navigate that situation. Encouraging them to express why they mask – it helps me keep other safe, I wear a mask because my brother is too young to be vaccinated, it protects my family – can allow them to respond to teasing and lessen the impact of others’ opinions on their well-being.
Remember that any kind of teasing, whether it’s about your child wearing a mask, wearing certain clothes, or having certain interests, is a form of bullying that should be addressed individually with your child and with teachers or administrators who can affect the environment where it’s happening.
“Start by talking to your child about the situation and the environment where the teasing is happening,” says Dr. Radcliff. “Who is doing the teasing? Is it a friend or someone your child doesn’t know? How much weight does that person’s opinion carry in the life of your child?”
Once you figure out the impact that the teasing is having, help your child feel safe standing up for themselves or work with teachers or other families to create a comfortable space for your child. For example, children who are more extroverted or assertive may just need help putting their response into words. For children who are more introverted or anxious, Dr. Radcliff recommends helping them find safety in their environment.
“I’ve had families talk to teachers about moving their child’s seat in a classroom. Some have worked with other families and teachers to allow all the children choosing to mask to sit at a table together so they feel more comfortable and supported,” he said.
At the end of the day, not everyone is an infectious disease expert (even though it feels like these days everyone has to be) or a child psychologist. When in doubt, trust the experts. Nemours Children’s Health has great resources on COVID-19 and Nemours KidsHealth.org is the most-searched site for information about pediatric health and development. Their COVID-19 articles are updated regularly and reviewed by doctors and they also have helpful information to address bullying and teasing.