(Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
(Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

With the school year just around the corner and COVID-19 cases surging, medical experts say it’s key to require masks in schools.

Nearly 500 Wisconsin pediatricians are urging school districts throughout the state to require that children wear face masks in classrooms and take other precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19 as the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb.

Those physicians who provide medical care for children have signed a letter from UW Health released Wednesday calling on school district leaders to mandate masks and require such measures as social distancing proven to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

Such measures helped keep spread of the coronavirus in schools low last school year, public health officials said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state Department of Health Services, and other health agencies back using masks, social distancing and washing hands frequently as ways of reducing the spread of COVID-19.

“It may seem like these pandemic restrictions will be around forever, but they won’t,” the letter reads. “We will get past this. But until we do, our hopes lie with all of you and with our ability to work together on a safe, happy, and effective return to school.”

Doctors and health officials said the Delta variant of COVID-19 is especially contagious, so protections such as masking are especially important as virus cases have risen significantly in recent weeks. On Tuesday, new cases topped 2,000 statewide, the highest figure since January. Officials at Wisconsin hospitals tell UpNorthNews they are planning for a surge of COVID-19 cases.

Heather Dubois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, supports the letter signed by pediatricians but said she is frustrated that action is necessary, given the obvious dangers posed by COVID-19 and the Delta variant.

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“How embarrassing is it that 500 pediatricians even have to sign this letter?” she said. “Putting our children at risk shouldn’t even be an issue given the evidence of the danger of this virus, but that is exactly what is happening in a lot of school districts around our state.”

Dubois Bourenane said she is particularly frustrated that Republican lawmakers and some school boards are enacting rules that fail to protect students, teachers, and staff from COVID-19. If cases of the virus continue to rise, schools could be forced to go to virtual instruction again, she said. 

“The irony here is many of the same people advocating last year to keep schools open for face-to-face instruction are now making conditions for that almost impossible. And that makes no sense,” Dubois Bourenane said.

In a statement issued Wednesday, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jill Underly urged parents and schools to take measures such as getting the COVID-19 vaccine and wearing masks in classrooms that would better allow schools to stay open amid ongoing pandemic.

Dr. Ajay Sethi, associate professor of population health science at UW-Madison, said the best methods to prevent school outbreaks are universal masking and vaccinations for those 12 and older. Those safeguards are especially important with Delta spreading rapidly.

“The Delta variant does indeed ‘change the game,'” Sethi said via email.

While it is still unclear if the Delta variant more severely affects children than previous strains, Sethi said, it is hitting young people harder because that age group has a lower vaccination rate and people under 12 are still not eligible for a vaccine.

St. Croix County Health Officer Kelli Engen is among health officials concerned about another spike in coronavirus infections in upcoming weeks as students and staff without masks converge at schools. Continued increases in COVID-19 cases will stress available resources, she said, and could make finding available hospital beds for treatment challenging.

Some Wisconsin school districts, such as Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, Eau Claire, and Appleton, are requiring that students wear masks, and a growing number of districts are reversing earlier stances against forcing students to wear masks and are now mandating them. However, most districts are making mask-wearing optional in classrooms.

Discussion of mask mandates at school board meetings across Wisconsin in recent weeks have at times turned contentious, and in some instances people opposed to masks in schools have been removed from meetings by police. 

Some school board members report having received threatening messages about the masking topic. Three board members in the Oconomowoc school district resigned earlier this month after talks about COVID-19 regulations in the district became heated. Outbursts about masks have occurred at school board meetings in Burlington, Pewaukee, Waukesha, Oshkosh, Lake Mills, and other locations as parents of some students have expressed frustration at their children being forced to wear masks.

Dubois Bourenane said she worries such dissension could prompt additional school board members to resign. 

“The lack of civility and the level of hostility in some of these demonstrations is really disappointing. It’s sad that our kids are seeing adults acting in this way,” she said.