RICHMOND, R.I. — Colleen Rogers’s daughter is going into the eighth grade this fall at Chariho Middle School — fully vaccinated and wearing a mask by her own choice.
Rogers says many students at her daughter’s school are not yet eligible for the vaccine, and she’s pleading the state to implement a mask mandate.
“Many of these poor kids are too young to be vaccinated and will become sitting ducks. Children in the South are getting sick,” she said. “Why would we want that for our innocent children?”
Governor Dan McKee has “strongly recommended” that districts implement mask policies this fall, but the final decision will largely be left up to school districts. Given the push for a full return to in-person learning, parents and teachers are concerned about the lack of a masking requirement.
“How come anti-mask parents’ concerns are being heard and [they] are being given a choice, when I am not? Parents that oppose masks and mask mandates are able to start the school year at ease, while the rest of us are being forced to risk our children because [the state department of education] is not requiring or supporting districts in building and offering a remote learning option,” said Jordana Ruggeri, a teacher in Central Falls whose 5- and 8-year-old children go will start school in Smithfield in September.
Local public health leaders and advocates are calling on the state to require masks in schools this fall. While Rhode Island’s vaccination rate is high — more than 81 percent of adults 18 and older are at least partially vaccinated — children under the age of 12 are still not eligible for a vaccine. And the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus has led to an uptick in cases, especially among unvaccinated individuals.
“The enemy has changed. Delta is now associated with the vast majority of cases in the U.S. and this variant is more ‘sticky’ to human cells, and causes clinical disease up to two days earlier, can result in viral loads in the airway that are 1,000-fold higher, and cause more reinfections or even evade, in some degree, vaccine-induced immune responses,” said Dr. Eleftherios Mylonakis, an infectious disease professor at Brown University and chief of infectious diseases at Rhode Island and The Miriam Hospitals.
More than a quarter of new COVID-19 cases in Rhode Island are among children under the age of 12 who cannot get vaccinated, according to data by the state health department.
“Our kids were fortunate enough [last year] to be in school all day, every day, for the full academic year. The mask mandate is what made that possible, and there were no instances of widespread transmission in our schools,” said Sean Donovan, a North Kingstown parent of two elementary school students. “I’m surprised that it’s even still a discussion in Rhode Island.”
The Rhode Island chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics recently sent a letter to all superintendents in the state, urging them to support universal masking.
“Thanks to the widely circulating and much more contagious Delta variant, the idea that COVID-19 infection is not a major threat to children is being re-examined,” read the letter.
They said a recent study reports that nearly 5 percent of all COVID-infected children have lingering symptoms such as MIS-C, fatigue, and brain fog for more than four weeks after their symptoms started, which could result in additional missed school and learning loss.
Politicians are also pressuring the governor to act: Late last week, Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, who is running for governor in 2022 against McKee, called for statewide mask mandate in all Rhode Island schools, as has State Treasurer Seth Magaziner, another likely 2022 candidate.
In response, McKee’s campaign spokesman Mike Trainor released a statement chastising Gorbea for politicizing the problem, and pointing out that “she does not have access to the national and local reservoir of data and medical/science resources that the McKee administration has had as it continues to monitor this particular issue.”
The mask mandate for all state offices and facilities means that masks are now required for all students, faculty, and staff at Rhode Island College, the University of Rhode Island, and the Community College of Rhode Island. Brown University reinstated its indoor mask policy and increased the frequency of mandatory COVID-19 tests for students and employees earlier this month, even though more than 95 percent of employees and more than 94 percent of students are fully vaccinated.
On Saturday, 34 Rhode Island lawmakers signed on to a letter asking McKee to consider the data and declare an executive order requiring facial coverings for school students, teachers, staff, and visitors to K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status.
“The decision of whether or not to require masking in schools is of vital importance to the health and well-being of Rhode Islanders,” read the letter. “Therefore, any actions must be guided by experts in the field of public health and epidemiology and should not be delegated to municipal school departments.”