With vaccines now available for children as young as 5, some school districts are easing up on their mask policies.



Now that vaccines are authorized for children ages 5 through 11, many parents want to know when their kids can take their masks off, especially at school. Coming up, we'll visit a district where students are taking off masks for the first time.

But first, education correspondent Anya Kamenetz has the latest on the intensely polarized debate over masks. Hey, Anya.


MARTIN: Before we get into this, can we just start by understanding what the official guidance on masking for kids is right now?

KAMENETZ: The CDC says everyone in a K-12 school should stay masked, period. And Rochelle Walensky recently said, you know, at least through the winter months - although we know there are many states and districts where masks in school are optional and even some where they are banned.

MARTIN: Right.

KAMENETZ: But now what's changed, I think, is that there are more and more kind of mainstream medical experts saying, we need to set a timeline for lifting these remaining mask mandates safely. So for example, when the vaccine for children has been around for, let's say, eight weeks or when 80% of the students are vaccinated, it should be time to take these masks off.

MARTIN: Right. So tell us more about the medical professionals you talked to.

KAMENETZ: So Dr. Jeanne Noble at UC San Francisco is, fair to say, pretty fed up with masking. She's been really concerned about students' mental health in California and these continued restrictions in a part of the country with very few infections right now and very high rates of vaccination.

JEANNE NOBLE: We're soon going to be entering the third year of this pandemic, and kids have sacrificed a lot. And I think families need to know, when is it that our kids' lives are going to go fully back to normal?

KAMENETZ: So Noble is one of the authors of a petition signed by 150 Bay Area health professionals asking the state of California to state clearly, when can students take off these masks? If it were up to her, it would be happening by the end of next month, after these Pfizer vaccines for children have been around for a while.

MARTIN: Are there any places, Anya, that are actually moving in that direction?

KAMENETZ: Yeah, across the country. In the state of Massachusetts, the department of education has said, as soon as a school demonstrates a vaccination rate of 80% or more - that's including both staff and students in the building - everyone who is vaccinated can take their masks off. And our member station colleague Carrie Jung at WBUR visited a school in Massachusetts that has done just that.

CARRIE JUNG, BYLINE: The town of Hopkinton is usually known for its role as the starting line of the Boston Marathon. But it's in the spotlight again as the first district in Massachusetts that's attempting to phase out mask mandates for vaccinated students and staff. To test out the idea, the school committee recently approved a three-week trial run. I stopped by in the middle of Week 2, just as school was letting out. The scene looked pretty normal as the hallway flooded with students. Many greeted their friends after a day apart. But only about half of the kids were wearing masks.

OWEN SCHNUR: Today I am unmasked.

EVANYA MATHUR: I am a masked sophomore at the high school.

JUNG: Senior Owen Schnur and sophomore Evanya Mathur say their decisions are personal. Mathur wants to wear a mask until her younger sibling gets vaccinated. But Schnur says he feels safe without one because about 98% of his classmates are vaccinated. So far, both say they've been surprised at how much they've enjoyed this trial period.

MATHUR: It's been really important to me to see my teachers' faces and see their face light up when someone gets a question right.

JUNG: But not everyone is excited about the idea, like Madison Loos, who's a senior.

MADISON LOOS: I was absolutely against it. I still am not sure I support it. I just don't - I haven't really established an opinion yet. But so far, I still wish we were all masked.

JUNG: Still, Loos says despite her reservations, she has noticed a lot of unexpected emotional benefits.

LOOS: You're communicating more than, like, before when it was just, like, looking at someone's eyes to read their cues (laughter).

MENA YOUSSIF: Like, my English teacher always say to me, like, it's hard to recognize what we are saying with masks. You cannot see our lips.

JUNG: For students like Mena Youssif, who moved here from Egypt two years ago, the policy has also made it easier to understand and speak English.

YOUSSIF: So like, when we take the mask off, it makes it much easier.

JUNG: All of the students I spoke to said this trial run has been an unexpected morale boost, even for those who have to stay masked because they aren't vaccinated yet, like Andrew Gaughan.

ANDREW GAUGHAN: I personally think it's great. I really enjoy seeing people's faces. I mean, it just makes for a better experience in school.

JUNG: Hearing such positive reports on the ground from students is a relief for district leaders like school committee chair Nancy Cavanaugh. She says making the decision wasn't easy because of the intense debate in the community.

NANCY CAVANAUGH: We got a lot of people that couldn't imagine that we would even entertain such a decision. And then we got the other side of that of people who are really angry that we won't entertain unmasking our vaccinated students.

JUNG: In the end, the school committee voted to try it with a few safeguards, like starting with a trial period, requiring vaccination proof and parent permission forms.

CAVANAUGH: It's baby steps. We have been really, I think, very cautious.

JUNG: So far, one student has tested positive for COVID-19, but health officials believe transmission of that case happened outside of the high school. The trial period wraps up next week. After that, the school committee will analyze what happened and decide if they want to make the policy permanent. In the meantime, students like Jessica Ianelli say she's going to enjoy this mask-free time with her friends while it lasts.

JESSICA IANELLI: I, like, forgot what the bottom half of their face looks like, which sounds so weird to say. But it's nice to see that come back to normal.

JUNG: For NPR News, I'm Carrie Jung in Hopkinton, Mass.

MARTIN: So interesting to hear all those kids reflecting on the pros and cons of wearing their masks. I mean, it sounds like the experiment, though, in this one district in Massachusetts is sort of working. Anya, are you seeing other districts likely to follow suit?

KAMENETZ: You know, I - and I agree with you. I think - you know, we didn't talk so much about the downsides of masking. But you can definitely hear in these students' voices, you know, the impact that it's had even on their moods.

MARTIN: Right.

KAMENETZ: I do see other districts following suit. There's been so many battle lines drawn over masks, so it's remarkable to see communities like this one that have been so COVID cautious start taking the masks off. You know, but this is a special place. This is a school where 98% of the people are vaccinated. And there are many communities around the country where people are rejecting both masks and, in many cases, vaccines. So in those places, I think it's going to be a lot harder to line up the science with rules that are going to make everybody happy.

But the public health experts - and I should underline this is still a really small group that are calling on states and the CDC to update their guidance - told me that they're speaking, you know, not only to the impatience that a lot of families may have to get back to normal, but to a real risk as well from a public health perspective. And that's if we keep extending restrictions and refuse to even talk about when they're going to be eased, that that could erode public trust in health authorities. And you know, if there's a new surge, a new variant, even a new virus that people might refuse to put the masks back on when they really need to.

MARTIN: All right. NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz. Anya, thank you so much for bringing us this story. We appreciate it.

KAMENETZ: Oh, thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.