Local pediatrician says making masks optional in schools is ‘disservice to community’

Pediatrician Dr. Mayuri Morker urges all students masked until more are vaccinated to help curb discrimination: ‘School is hard enough as it is’

SYCAMORE – Dr. Mayuri Morker, a pediatrician at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital, said she believes local school districts should require masks when school returns in the fall until enough children can get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Morker, a local pediatrician at RMG Primary Care at 8150 Gateway Drive in Sycamore, and at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital’s pediatric nursery, is weighing in as local school boards debate whether to mandate mask wearing or not in the classrooms when the new school year begins next month. She called the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending all students, teachers and staff wear masks inside schools when classes resume to protect unvaccinated children from COVID-19 a “very, very good recommendation.”

Morker said she was glad to see the well-respected pediatric medical association take a strong stance on what has turned into a hotly-debated topic She said she believes it’s important to encourage actions that align with that recommendation.

“Everyone is thinking about going back to school,” Morker said. “With the last year of the pandemic and the iffy-ness of going back in person, remote learning, we’ve all realized how much the kids have suffered. And we all want kids back in person – I think this is the safest way that we can continue to keep being back in school in person.”

Morker’s comments come after area school districts turn to local vaccination data to inform mask-wearing policies as classes begin in less than a month, at the direction of newer guidance from the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Public Health.

According to the IDPH’s most recent available data Thursday, there are 6,047,872 of the state’s 12+ population who are fully vaccinated, or 55.8% of the statewide population for that age group. There is no public breakdown for how many of those are in DeKalb County, however.

Several DeKalb County school districts – including Sycamore School District 427 and Genoa-Kingston School District 424 – recently adopted optional masking policies. The decisions came amid outcry from parents in those districts urging educators to drop masks, saying they’re not necessary or they believe mental and physical health risks of wearing masks outweigh the risk of children getting severely ill from the virus.

DeKalb School District 428 officials have not yet made an official decision whether masks will be required or optional for students. In a recent school board meeting, district parents spoke in favor of students wearing masks until more children are vaccinated from COVID-19, and new DeKalb Superintendent Minerva Garcia-Sanchez said she supports students wearing masks in the fall.

“Only until people are 100% vaccinated and we’re not worried about variants would I say that masks should be 100% optional,” Garcia-Sanchez said in an interview following the school board meeting Tuesday.

Optional masks ‘disservice to community’

With children under 12 unable to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine yet, Morker said she thinks encouraging and requiring masking at school will ensure the safety of everyone involved. She said it’s especially important considering the recent rise in COVID-19 cases, most being from the Delta variant of the coronavirus.

“From day one, we have known that social distancing, masking and good hygiene all are very good at keeping this at bay,” Morker said. “So even if your child has had the immunity from getting the illness a few months ago or you have an older child that has had the vaccine, not everyone in the school is eligible or able get vaccinated.”

Morker said she believes making masking optional is “a disservice to the community.”

“Because now you’re putting at risk, again, the vulnerable population who cannot be vaccinated because we don’t have a vaccine,” Morker said.

Morker said she also appreciates the AAP pointing to optional masking not being a feasible option because of policy monitoring concerns.

“Schools don’t have the resources, nor should they use resources, to try to say, ‘Okay, student X is vaccinated, he doesn’t have to wear a mask – student Y is not vaccinated, he needs to keep his mask on,’ ” Morker said. “So it’s just an easier process if we just say everyone in the school wear a mask when you’re in school.”

Morker said district families also may not be aware if a child has an immuno-compromised person at home.

“School is hard enough as it is,” Morker said. “Why add to things that make people different?”

Morker said, although she has seen less COVID-19 hospitalizations in local children – who are transported to Central DuPage Hospital’s pediatric unit and not Kishwaukee Hospital – she said children can still fall ill to the virus. She pointed to there being zero influenza cases in her pediatric practice during the winter of 2020, which she attributes to the widespread use of face masks limiting community spread.

“So clearly we see that a lot of respiratory viruses can be cut down with the masking guidelines,” Morker said. “So there is benefit to it. These can all help the kids stay in school again without illnesses and without having to miss or get tested unnecessarily.”

Misinformation about masks

Morker also said there has been misinformation about the harm masks can cause, which has been disproven.

“Masks are not a new entity,” Morker said. “People have worn masks in the medical field and other fields for ages, right? Like even in the medical field, for surgeons, the anesthesiologist, people who are in the OR [operating room] doing long procedures, they wear masks the whole time and there has been no detriment to their health.”

Morker said if an adult vaccinated from COVID-19 is at work and not required to wear a mask, it’s their choice per CDC guidelines.

“But if you’re with your family and you’re somewhere indoors or around people, large groups of people, then you should set an example and everyone in the family should wear a mask so that those that are ineligible or unable to get the vaccine don’t feel like they are kind of the ones who are being separated from the family,” Morker said. “It’s the same thing as when we talk about obesity and we talk about family making the dietary changes as a whole. We don’t want to say to the one child, ‘Oh, everyone else can have a cookie, but not you, because you need to lose weight.’ ”

Morker said she would like to see schools formally saying they want everyone to be masked unless there is a medical or developmental reason why someone can’t be masked.

“I think it just sets up a good example for the community that we are kind of all in this together,” Morker said. “We’re taking that extra step to prevent our school and our students and our community from being affected by this or getting another wave of the pandemic.”

Katie Finlon

Katie Finlon

Katie Finlon covers local government and breaking news for DeKalb County in Illinois. She has covered local government news for Shaw Media since 2018 and has had bylines in Daily Chronicle, Kendall County Record newspapers, Northwest Herald and in public radio over the years.