Doing away with mask requirements in schools could put children’s wellbeing and lives at risk, the head of a state pediatrics organization said, in asking Gov. Henry McMaster to undo his executive order allowing children to go to school unmasked.
“For officials to belittle the effects of COVID on children and on their families, it was — oh, what’s the polite word — repugnant to me and to other pediatricians,” said Dr. Bob Saul, president of South Carolina’s chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Saul, who is a Greenwood County resident, is a book author and columnist who has written extensively on issues pertaining to children.
The SCAAP’s executive committee wrote a letter to McMaster on May 20 asking him to rescind his May 11 executive order allowing parents to opt children out of wearing masks in public schools. The SCAAP represents more than 750 pediatricians statewide, and in its letter says 14% of all COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic have been children.
“This executive order runs counter to the sound advice of public health officials. It puts vulnerable children and families at risk,” the letter said. “…To get all children safely back in school, back in athletics, back in summer camps and back in all the vital social activities that they need, we need to stop the spread of COVID-19 by using masks and pushing for maximum vaccination of everyone 12 years old or older.”
While the Pfizer vaccine was approved for use in children ages 12 and up, younger children aren’t able to be vaccinated, leaving them vulnerable to COVID-19. Children tend to have milder symptoms from the virus than adults, Saul said, and while long-term effects on children have seemed mild, there’s much researchers still don’t know.
In schools, where social distancing can prove challenging, masks can prevent the airborne spread of particles that transmit COVID-19. Saul said in a school setting, even vaccinated people should be wearing masks because many children can’t be vaccinated.
“The misunderstanding is that the children aren’t really at risk of anything serious,” he said. “Why would a rare death be acceptable?”
Saul said he’s treated a fair number of children with chronic illnesses who deserve the same level of protection as anyone else. There were widespread efforts in schools to protect children with peanut allergies from exposure, Saul said, asking why the state can’t then make widespread efforts to protect against COVID-19, which can affect all unvaccinated children.
While he praised the state Department of Health and Environmental Control’s efforts in vaccine education and access, he said the governor’s office hasn’t done enough to emphasize the importance of still taking preventative measures while enough people get vaccinated to create herd immunity.
The letter urged the governor’s office to require all unvaccinated adults and children to wear masks in school. Following the May 11 executive order, schools in the Lakelands have removed their mask requirements.
In Greenwood County school districts 50 and 52, students and employees can opt out of mask-wearing by signing a form provided by DHEC. District 51 also allows students and employees to opt out, but requires employees opting out to be fully vaccinated. Abbeville’s schools don’t require a form, allowing students and staff to go unmasked, and McCormick County School District posted its opt-out form online.
Masks are still required onboard buses, and school visitors still need to wear masks, but Saul said the move to unmask in schools was a politically motivated choice and not in the best interest of students’ health.
“It’s become a political issue and it should be apolitical,” he said. “It should be a public health issue.”
Contact staff writer Damian Dominguez at 864-634-7548 or follow on Twitter @IJDDOMINGUEZ.