The Evanston public school year begins again next month, and both District 65 and District 202 are ready to welcome students back to a full schedule of classes, sports and social gatherings in person. This provides joy and relief to the thousands of families and teachers who coped with remote learning for more than one year, with all the educational, emotional and social shortfalls that the unprecedented time brought to our community.
Public health guidelines and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have ebbed and flowed over time as viral rates, vaccination rates and new strains of the virus have changed and emerged. The FDA has approved the use of COVID-19 vaccines in people 12 and older, and many teens and adults in Evanston have been fully vaccinated. This is welcome news and provides a relatively high level of immunity and safety in our community. Unfortunately, many Americans have remained unvaccinated, and coupled with the rise of the very contagious Delta variant, COVID-19 positivity rates are now rising again in Illinois and Cook County. Some news reports indicate that significant COVID-19 outbreaks are occurring among fully vaccinated people, likely due to contact with unvaccinated people infected with the Delta variant. To address the risk of possible viral outbreaks at Evanston Township High School, the administration just announced a new policy: all students, teachers and staff must always wear masks in the fall, regardless of vaccine status. I welcome this policy update.
I am a local public health doctor, the parent of an ETHS graduate, and I have been pushing for a full reopening of our schools for months now. Like everyone else, I want our schools to reopen in the safest way possible. District 65 administrators, noting that children under age 12 are not yet illegible for COVID-19 vaccines, have mandated universal masking to keep everyone in school as safe as possible. Until recently, it seemed like the current policy in place at ETHS, requiring masks only for the unvaccinated, seemed adequate. But we all know that the COVID-19 pandemic evolves frequently, and today’s situation calls for a more cautious approach. The new masking policy at D202 will allow the high school to fully reopen in August.
Counter to the recent universal school masking statement by the American Academy of Physicians, a society that represents more than 65,000 pediatricians and the recent decision by Chicago Public Schools to implement a universal masking policy, some D202 parents have challenged me on social media. They have stated that their teens are fully vaccinated and don’t need to wear masks and that mask-wearing inhibits the normal school experience. I applaud all parents who have sought vaccines for their children aged 12 and older. Masking adds another layer of protection, needed while the Delta variant is coming on strong. The idea of layers of protection is widespread in our society and in our medical care. We drive cars that have both highly effective seatbelts and airbags, and these protective layers save lives. If a patient needs a blood transfusion in a medical center, both the blood bank employees and the nursing staff check to make sure the patient is receiving the correct transfusion via a multi-step protocol that involves many layers of confirmation. This verified practice also saves lives. And while wearing a mask at school may not seem quite “natural,” or free, most of us are accustomed to wearing masks in public. I am fully vaccinated, and I also wear a mask all day at work while I see patients, and when I go into stores, museums and the library. It’s a little inconvenient, but certainly worth the protection that I receive and provide to others.
Evanston public schools are thankfully reopening soon. School administrators should welcome everyone back in the safest way possible; universal masking must be part of that response.
By Sarah Pressman Lovinger, MD