Updated: September 27, 2022
In the wake of the statewide mask mandate expiring, some Maui parents have increased calls to drop public school indoor masking, saying that state and federal directives are inconsistent and masking kids over the long term causes more harm than good.
Gov. David Ige allowed the state’s emergency order with indoor masking rules to sunset Saturday.
However, the state Department of Education told Maui Now on Monday that indoor masking for public schools will continue until “further notice.”
“It’s not fair; the population with the lowest risk are the only ones still required to wear them,” said Wailuku resident Christina Miller, a frontline healthcare worker.
With long-term mask wearing, school kids are suffering from overheating, respiratory issues, staph infections around their mouths and noses, headaches and anxiety, along with learning challenges in reading and pronunciation, she added.
“As a mother of a kindergartener who is learning to read, I cannot tell you the impact of her being in a mask all year has caused. There are children who are going to have long-term serious issues because of this,” Miller said.
Kahului resident Cheryl Monten, whose young daughter has Down syndrome, said the mask mandate impedes her child’s Individualized Education Program.
“With slight hearing loss, she can’t hear peers or teachers with masks on as easily,” Monten said. “Kids in her preschool class are all trying to navigate socially to become kindergarten ready. Masks greatly hinder their progress because so much of language is nonverbal communication centered on the face.”
Some parents are pointing to inconsistencies between federal and state guidance, along with private versus public school systems, when it comes to masking children in school.
Jessica Hoecker, whose son is in second grade at an Upcountry public school, said state Health and Education departments have conflicting directives. She questions which government body has authority.
“It’s very convoluted,” she said.
On the second page of the 25-page state DOH guidance for K-12 schools updated as of March 22, indoor masking policies as referred to as “optional.”
“Schools that implement optional indoor masking policies after March 25, 2022, should continue individual case investigation, contact identification and quarantine of all COVID-19 exposures,” DOH wrote.
However, state DOE spokesperson Nanea Kalani said individual case investigation, close contact identification and quarantine of in-school exposures are no longer required “only if universal indoor masking is implemented.”
“I would just again emphasize that if the DOE were to end universal indoor masking at this point, schools would need to perform contact tracing and notification for anyone exposed to confirmed or probable COVID cases while at school, and in-school exposures would also be subject to quarantine requirements,” Kalani said via email. “These requirements were recently lifted by DOH so long as universal indoor masking is in place.”
“As always, our health and safety rules will continue to evolve based on the latest guidance from DOH and CDC,” she added.
State DOH spokesperson Brooks Baehr said DOH is not establishing rules for schools.
“DOH is not mandating indoor masking,” he said via email Monday. “DOH is making recommendations and issuing guidance. DOH is not establishing policy for schools.”
Baehr added that it’s possible for schools, “perhaps independent ones with high vaccination rates,” to make indoor masking optional.
“If so, DOH recommends those schools continue individual case investigation, contact identification and quarantine of all COVID-19 exposures,” he said.
Andi Schloss, Lahaina parent of a public school first grader, said the disparity between public and private school mask mandates teaches kids the wrong messages.
“It teaches them that if you do not have the money to go to a private school, you do not deserve equal freedom and opportunity,” she said. “It’s teaching public schoolchildren that they should still be very fearful of a virus that children at private school need to no longer fear.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month said it no longer recommends universal indoor mask wearing in K-12 schools and early education settings in areas with “low” or “medium” COVID-19 Community Level.
The new CDC tool looks at occupied hospital beds, hospital admissions and new area COVID-19 cases to determine “low,” “medium” or “high” community level and preventative steps to take.
CDC on Tuesday showed that Maui County has a “low” community level.
State DOH in its recent guidance said that schools are not “amplifiers” of COVID-19, which was initially thought.
“Although COVID-19 clusters have occurred in school settings, multiple studies have shown that transmission rates within school settings are typically lower than or similar to community transmission levels when multiple layered prevention strategies are in place,” it wrote.
In a press release by the Governor’s Office announcing the end of the statewide mask mandate, indoor areas where masks were still “recommended” included schools, hospitals and health care facilities, long-term care facilities, shelters, correctional facilities and other congregate living settings.