Our View: Want to keep masks optional in schools? Get vaccinated

We’ve asked children to bear so many burdens of the pandemic. More adults getting vaccinated gives them the best shot at normalcy in school.

School boards across northern Illinois are falling in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines for mask requirements for the upcoming school year – making them optional, but suggested for those that remain unvaccinated.

Often packed with parents who are fully engaged on the issue, meetings have been passionate on all sides, occasionally getting contentious. Last week, we encouraged parents to speak out in a civil manner for how they felt. We’re impressed any time we see deep community engagement and conversation about important topics, so let’s give kudos to those who showed up and spoke from the heart, and to those who listened.

In many districts, we now know the rules of the road. We also must understand the risks of the masks-optional road many are traveling.

Removing an effective layer of protection, and going against the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, increases the risk in an unvaccinated population. Kids younger than 12 aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated. It might not be until the end of this year before they are, experts say.

While kids generally have the best outcome of any age group from a COVID-19 infection – there are only 21 recorded deaths in the state in those younger than 20 for the entire pandemic – it’s not zero risk. And the more transmissible Delta variant, which is becoming the dominant variant not just in Illinois, but the rest of the country, adds to the risk. It recently put 10 kids in Mississippi in the ICU. Los Angeles County reinstituted a mask mandate because of the rise of Delta. Kansas City issued a mask advisory because new cases and hospitalizations are rising so fast in Missouri.

Which leads us to our point. We have asked children to bear the burden of our pandemic through remote learning, hybrid learning, quarantining, isolation, pandemic rules and procedures for a long time. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of the damage of not having a normal school week since mid-March 2020. This August is our best chance to have that sense of normalcy in the classroom.

We want to keep it that way. The best thing adults and anyone 12 or older can do to accomplish this is get vaccinated. Think of it as a small way to say thank you to these children who have been forced to endure so much.

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine has been called a personal choice. But the truth is, it’s not. Because that’s not how viruses work. It’s a choice that affects anyone you come in close contact with, and increases the risk of spread if you choose not to get vaccinated.

Even if you get vaccinated and contract COVID-19, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed vaccinated individuals had a 40% lower viral load than the unvaccinated study participants, and a 66% lower risk of having detectable virus for more than one week. In other words, vaccinated individuals carry less virus if they get infected, which lowers the risk of spread.

At this point, choosing to not get vaccinated if you are eligible is a selfish choice against your community, your schools and your local businesses. And although we started this editorial by praising those who showed up to school board meetings to engage, we are equally appalled by the confidence in people who willingly shared misinformation about the efficacy and safety of vaccines and masks, or COVID-19 in general.

We are not here to amplify any the medical misinformation shared at these meetings, but only to say that if you have questions, talk to your doctor or county health department – reputable, knowledgable sources of information.

Illinois has done a decent job of getting its residents vaccinated, although it joins the rest of the country in its significantly slowed vaccination rate. Even Canada, which had an even worse vaccine rollout than us, has passed the U.S. in the percentage of its fully vaccinated population.

Illinois is now more than 50% fully vaccinated. Most public health experts believe we need to reach between 60% and 80% fully vaccinated to reach herd immunity. Some of our counties in northern Illinois exceed the overall state number. And, reflective of national numbers, new COVID-19 cases, positivity rate and hospitalizations are rising at a slower rate in higher-vaccinated communities.

The vaccines are safe, effective and free. State data acquired by the Shaw Local News Network through the Freedom of Information Act this week showed that in May, more than 90% of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations were in the unvaccinated population, and in June, it was more than 86%.

The more we can do to reduce community transmission of the virus, the better chance we all have at ending this pandemic. Vaccines are the best way to do it. If you’ve been vaccinated, please tell friends or family who might be on the fence about getting vaccinated about why you chose to do it, and what your experience has been. They are more likely to be convinced by you than a public official.

Our children are largely in that vulnerable, unvaccinated population. Protect them by giving this virus fewer places to spread. It’s honestly the least you can do to say thank you for what they’ve had to go through during this pandemic. It’s also our best shot at a normal school year.