Abolishing mask requirements in schools could endanger children’s well-being and lives, the head of a state pediatrics organization said when he asked Governor Henry McMaster to reverse his executive order allowing children to go to school unmasked.
“For officials to belittle the effects of COVID on children and their families, it was — oh, what’s the polite word — abhorrent to me and other pediatricians,” said Dr. Bob Saul, president of the American Academy South Carolina Division of Pediatrics. A native of Greenwood County, Saul is a book writer and columnist who has written extensively on issues related to children.
The SCAAP executive committee wrote a letter to McMaster on May 20 asking him to revoke his May 11 executive order, allowing parents to refrain from wearing masks in public schools. The SCAAP represents more than 750 pediatricians statewide, and in its letter, 14% of all COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic have been children.
“This executive order goes against the sound advice of public health officials. It puts vulnerable children and families at risk,” the letter said. “…To get all children safely back to school, back to athletics, back to summer camps, and back to all the vital social activities they need, we must Stop the spread of COVID-19 by using masks and aiming for maximum vaccination for everyone aged 12 or older.”
While the Pfizer vaccine is approved for use in children 12 years and older, younger children cannot be vaccinated, leaving them vulnerable to COVID-19. Children tend to have milder symptoms of the virus than adults, Saul said, and while the long-term effects on children seemed mild, there’s a lot that researchers still don’t know.
In schools, where social distancing can be a challenge, masks can prevent the airborne spread of particles that transmit COVID-19. Saul said that in a school setting, even vaccinated people should wear masks because many children cannot be vaccinated.
“The misconception is that the kids aren’t really at risk for anything serious,” he said. “Why would a rare death be acceptable?”
Saul said he has treated quite a few children with chronic illnesses who deserve the same level of protection as everyone else. There were widespread efforts in schools to protect children with peanut allergies from exposure, Saul said, asking why the state can’t take widespread efforts to protect against COVID-19, which can affect all unvaccinated children.
While he praised the efforts of the Department of Health and the Environment on education and access to vaccines, he said the governor’s office has not done enough to emphasize the importance of still taking preventive measures while ensuring adequate people are vaccinated to create herd immunity.
The letter urged the governor’s office to require all unvaccinated adults and children to wear masks at school. Following the May 11 executive order, schools in the Lakelands have lifted their mask requirements.
In Greenwood County school districts 50 and 52, students and employees can opt out of wearing masks by signing a form provided by DHEC. District 51 also allows students and employees to opt out, but requires employees who opt out to be fully vaccinated. Abbeville’s schools do not require a form, which could expose students and staff, and McCormick County School District posted the opt-out form online.
Masks are still mandatory on buses and school visitors are still required to wear masks, but Saul said the move to expose in schools was a politically motivated choice and not in the best interest of students’ health.
“It has become a political issue and it should be apolitical,” he said. “It should be a public health problem.”
Contact staff writer Damian Dominguez at 864-634-7548 or follow on Twitter @IJDDOMINGUEZ.