As COVID, flu, and RSV cases spike, NYC school officials recommend masking indoors

Elementary students with and without masks sit around a table with a green plastic bin in the middle of the table.

With the triple whammy of flu, RSV, and COVID cases converging in New York City, education department officials are recommending that students and staff wear masks inside school buildings, according to a message they sent families on Tuesday.

“We strongly encourage every student and staff member to wear a well-fitting mask indoors,” the message said.

The recommendation comes after the city’s health department issued an advisory last week encouraging mask-wearing in schools, child care facilities, and other indoor settings, including stores, offices, and on public transportation. State Health Commissioner Mary Bassett and state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa also sent a letter last week to all New York school districts recommending mask-wearing as the “triple-demic” strains local hospitals

School attendance has been down in recent weeks. This Monday and last Monday attendance citywide reached about 85%, according to education department data. The only Mondays with lower attendance were Halloween and the day after Thanksgiving. 

With the uptick in COVID along with RSV and flu cases, the city’s drug stores are running out of medicine like Tylenol for children, according to reports

On Monday, 1,858 students and staffers reported testing positive for coronavirus, bringing this school year’s total to 48,265 reported cases, according to public data. That’s nearly three times the number of cases reported at the same time last year, when schools had 15,083 cases, according to public data compiled by Parents for Responsive Equitable Safe Schools. 

In terms of the flu, New York state has seen about 44,000 cases this season, the majority of which are from New York City, according to state data as of Dec. 3. That represented 41,550 more cases than the same time the year before. And rates of RSV, which can cause breathing trouble for young children, in particular, have nearly doubled since October, according to reports

School officials are not implementing a mask mandate, and many students and educators might be reluctant to cover their faces again nearly three years into the coronavirus pandemic. The city lifted mask mandates lifted at K-12 schools last March and in June for preschools

Mask-wearing has become a lightning rod across the country, with many parents pushing back against the value of face coverings, saying that wearing them has brought other negative consequences, including harming students’ mental health and language development.

Though much of scientific literature on mask mandates remains limited, a recently published study linked masks to significantly reducing the number of COVID cases in schools. The paper examined school districts in the greater Boston area that lifted mask mandates versus those that did not. 

In Boston’s public schools, for instance, students remained masked, and despite having old buildings with poor ventilation, crowded classrooms, and children from at-risk communities, they had lower rates of COVID than peers at newer schools in nearby districts, the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found

Teaching while masked is a challenge, many educators have said, forcing them to consider various tradeoffs. 

Yvette Andino, a bilingual school counselor in Queens, previously told Chalkbeat that when working with kids on emotions, it was tricky to show facial expressions when masked. 

“There are some emotions I couldn’t show with my mask, like anger and sadness or the surprised feeling or shocked feeling,” said Andino. “You kind of form your mouth like an ‘O,’ like ‘oh, shoot’ or ‘oh, man.’ That was really hard for them to learn.”

It took many of her students three times as long as usual to learn how to recognize and understand certain emotions, she said. But eventually, they got there.

Amy Zimmer is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Amy at azimmer@chalkbeat.org.

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