Novant, Atrium doctors weigh in on masks for kids heading back to school

CHARLOTTE — We are just a little more than a month away from back to school, and as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, parents may wonder if their children will have to wear a mask again in the classroom.

While North Carolina health officials are still debating guidance for local school districts, Channel 9 education reporter Elsa Gillis heard from Charlotte doctors on Tuesday about what they recommend.

Dr. David Priest, Novant Health’s chief safety, quality and epidemiology officer, spoke to the latest guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“I think the idea is, look, we’re not out of this, the delta variant’s around. Kids under 12 can’t be vaccinated yet. We know that you can successfully have in-person school with masking and taking good precautions, even with kids who aren’t vaccinated -- that’s what American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending,” Priest said.

On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidance for students returning to classrooms this fall. The group is recommending that all children age 2 and older should wear a mask in school -- no matter their vaccination status.

Kids younger than 12 are not eligible for the vaccine.

Priest said there are a lot of variables that go into COVID-19 rates, but in general, they’ve seen masks work in schools to prevent transmission.

“My view would be what you’re going to see is areas that have higher vaccination rates and are masking, you’re going to have fewer problems with COVID outbreaks in schools, and areas where you’re not masking and less vaccinated you’re going to have more problems. It’s pretty simple math,” he said. “I think kids can go in-person, but I think masks make a lot of sense.”

Dr. Amina Ahmed with Atrium Health also spoke to what we’ve seen play out over the last year.

“What we do have is a lot of good data from nice, robust studies that tells us that you can prevent transmission in schools if you do the things that you are supposed to do to mitigate, so masking is definitely critical, distancing is very important, staying home when you’re sick.”

Ahmed said they are seeing an increase in the percent positive among children tested for COVID-19, and although they typically do well with the virus, there is still a risk.

“We’re still very, very lucky in pediatrics in that most children do well, clinically. They don’t have severe disease but we do know that severe disease can happen,” she said. “Because that’s the population that’s unvaccinated, they’re still going to be vulnerable.”

For families wondering when their children younger than 12 could get vaccinated, Priest said they are hopeful they’ll see some approval or emergency use authorization for kids under 12 later in the fall.

Priest said the number of COVID cases as well as hospitalizations are up at Novant Health, and the average age of admitted patients with the virus is 47 -- down from age 61.

He said that almost all those admitted have not been vaccinated.

(WATCH BELOW: NC health officials urge schools to reopen ‘to the fullest extent possible’)