Harvard study concludes that it’s too soon to lift mask mandates in most elementary schools

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As the Omicron surge wanes, many school districts are lifting mask mandates. But coronavirus transmission rates are still far too high to lift such mandates in elementary schools, according to a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Lifting them sooner would put students, staff and families at too high a risk of transmission, say researchers from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Massachusetts General Hospital.

The study notes that little information exists that can help school districts figure out when it’s safe to lift and reinstate mask mandates. So the researchers created simulations to quantify how mask mandates could affect virus transmission. They based the models on the virulence of the Delta variant; that’s noteworthy, since the Omicron variant is even more transmissible, though less likely to cause serious illness.

Researchers said the appropriate time to lift or reinstate mandates varies based on what goals the school district is aiming for, such as keeping the number of cases low, or minimizing absences due to isolation and quarantining so schools can continue in-person learning. It also varies based on the size of the school, the number of vaccinated students and teachers, and more. In general, the researchers said that instituting weekly screening or increasing vaccination rates would allow schools to lift mask mandates even when there are higher rates of transmission in the community.

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