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Without masks, are schools able to do enough to decrease the spread of COVID-19?

Kindergarteners wear masks while listening to their teacher amid the COVID-19 pandemic at Washington Elementary School in Lynwood, Calif., on Jan. 12. Gov. Gavin Newsom delayed a closely watched decision on lifting California's school mask mandate on Feb. 14 even as other Democratic governors around the country dropped them.
Marcio Jose Sanchez
/
AP
Kindergarteners wear masks while listening to their teacher amid the COVID-19 pandemic at Washington Elementary School in Lynwood, Calif., on Jan. 12. Gov. Gavin Newsom delayed a closely watched decision on lifting California's school mask mandate on Feb. 14 even as other Democratic governors around the country dropped them.

Many schools rely on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control to make decisions on pandemic policies.

The agency recently relaxed its guidelines, ending a recommendation to quarantine if exposed to COVID-19 and ending the specific recommendation for six feet of 'social distance' to decrease the spread of the virus. Masks following exposure are still recommended.

Some medical professionals don’t agree with the federal agency’s decision, calling it 'science mixed with politics.'

"It's colloquially referred to as just living with the virus," former St. Luke's Health Systems CEO Dr. David Pate told Idaho Matters this week. "Yes, we're going to have to live with this virus. But so many people think that that means, 'okay, well, then we just throw all caution to the wind.' That's not what it means."

Masks in schools would help, Pate said, but he realizes that’s not politically acceptable in most districts. If masks aren’t up for debate, Pate said other plans to prevent transmission need to be better.

"What are we doing about air handling? How many air exchanges per hour are we going to do? What are we doing for air filtration? Are we recirculating air or exhausting air? That level of specificity is missing from many districts' 'back-to-school' pandemic plans," Pate said. "I think we wasted a lot of those early pandemic funds that could have helped schools improve their ventilation, filtration air handling systems."

Steps districts will take in the event of a surge of new cases in the broader community are missing from pandemic response plans as well. Instead, Pate said he still sees too much attention paid to cleaning surfaces.

"The fact that we're in 2022, in the third school year since the first outbreak of this and people still think the way you control COVID is by cleaning surfaces: That's a problem. And look, I am all for [cleaning] transmitting surfaces. There's plenty of other things that are transmitted that way. But that shouldn't be your COVID plan," Pate said.

No school districts in Idaho are requiring students or staff to wear masks as the 2022-23 academic year begins. According to Idaho Health and Welfare's COVID-19 data dashboard, the current average daily case rate in Idaho is less than half compared to the start of school last year and nearly the same as the start of the 2020-21 school year.

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News. He's also heard Saturday nights on Boise State Public Radio Music's Jazz Conversations.