In-Depth: Young kids in the U.K. don't wear masks at school

U.K. primary students don't wear masks
Posted at 7:29 PM, Sep 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-01 22:59:11-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- In California classrooms, K-12 students and teachers are required to wear masks. Overseas, the United Kingdom is taking a different approach.

In the U.K., elementary school-age children and their teachers have been going maskless in classrooms for months, including through a wave of delta infections in the spring and summer.

There are mask requirements for middle and high school-age students, but as U.K. children return to class this month, the education minister is pledging to lift those rules soon.

Instead of an emphasis on masks, the country has relied on rapid testing and quarantining. The government’s scientific advisers argue it’s worked.

A new study found the infection rate in 141 U.K. primary and secondary schools in June was “consistently lower” than the infection rate in the general community.

“This is reassuring and confirms that schools are not hubs of infection,” said study lead Dr. Shamez Ladhani, a pediatrician and consultant for Public Health England.

Leaders in both the Conservative and Labour Parties generally believe that masks impede young children’s communication and learning. They say young children need to learn how to interpret facial expressions.

But many U.S. pediatricians like Dr. John Bradley of Rady Children’s Hospital are skeptical of the U.K.’s approach. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks for everyone at America’s schools aged 2 and up.

“In England, they’ve given up on kids getting infections and spreading it,” Bradley said. “We don’t accept that in the United States.”

Dr. Bradley said child development experts at Rady Children’s Hospital are not concerned about masks causing harm. Instead, they’re far more concerned about the unknown risks of long-haul COVID on the developing brain.

“We shouldn’t say, ‘Well maybe this will be a psychological problem [so] we’ll let the virus spread through the community,’” he said. “My opinion is we’ve got to stop delta from circulating so we can get back to normal.”

The C.D.C. cites numerous studies showing schools with universal masks had lower risks of infection than schools without them. In rare instances where school outbreaks have occurred, the agency has frequently linked them to a lapse in masking. A study released last week showed an unmasked teacher who occasionally removed their mask fueled an outbreak at a Marin County elementary school.

But even among the world’s most respected health agencies, there is debate over the benefits of masking children aged 2 through 5. The World Health Organization recommends against masks for kids 5 and under regardless of transmission rates, citing children’s “psychosocial needs and developmental milestones.”

“This is based on the safety and overall interest of the child and the capacity to appropriately use a mask with minimal assistance,” the WHO guidelines state.

U.C. San Francisco’s Peter Chin-Hong says it is ultimately a question of what to prioritize: learning or prevention.

“About 1% of kids will go to the hospital and 0.01% of those who go to the hospital will die,” He said. “I think it comes down to what is society’s tolerance.”

Most studies on masking in schools were conducted before the delta variant. With an even higher threat from this variant, he favors masking children to provide an additional layer of protection.

“In a high-prevalence community where you’re getting a lot of transmissions outdoors, it just seems like an easy-to-implement strategy that’s practical,” he said.

Experts note there are significant differences between the health and education systems in the U.K. and those in the U.S. The U.K. is a much smaller country with a nationalized healthcare system and more access to rapid testing.

“In California, we just don’t have that capacity,” said Bradley. Until testing resources change, masks and vaccinations remain the best way to prevent spread, he said.

The U.K. has also leaned heavily on quarantining children who were close contacts of confirmed cases. In mid-July, more than 1 million kids were forced to stay home from school, about 14 percent of all U.K. schoolchildren.

That’s a level of burden that would be difficult for many U.S. parents at this stage, Bradley said. Following an exposure, C.D.C. guidelines allow students to avoid a 10-day quarantine if children remained consistently masked.

“In the U.K., having kids quarantine and having parents pulled from work doesn’t seem to be as big of an issue as it is in the United States,” Bradley said.