CHICAGO — The conversation over whether children unvaccinated against COVID-19 should continue to wear face masks is hotly debated in medical circles.
But more than a year of masking, hand-washing, and social distancing has made one thing clearer: children are getting sick less often. Some are now asking whether these protocols should be used to fend off other illnesses, well beyond the pandemic.
For the last 14 months, preschoolers at Laurance Armour Day School in Chicago have been masking up.
“Hand hygiene and masking has been crucial for us from the beginning,” said the school's program director Maria Walker. “Disinfecting, making sure everything's clean. High visible areas are cleaned every half an hour.”
Following strict protocols here has kept the virus at bay.
“Social distancing as much as you can with children and masking is one of the biggest ones and proper handwashing,” said Walker.
This day care and school for the children of healthcare workers and frontline medical staff never closed. It was granted emergency licensing to stay open, even when classrooms around the country were shut down.
“Everybody at first was fearful the children, 2 years and up, can't wear a mask,” said Walker. “Our children adjusted so well. We did a couple of activities with masks, and we had no problems.”
More than a year later, something remarkable has happened.
“I mean, pinkeye--the simplest thing as pinkeye--we have not seen any cases here the last 14 months,” she said.
Illnesses that frequently sweep through daycares and schools--like hand, foot and mouth disease, strep throat and influenza--have been nearly wiped out here.
“It may be more beneficial just to reduce the number of viruses that are around altogether so that you have less illness. And that, again, will protect the children for multiple reasons, including against COVID, flu and other things that put children in a hospital,” said Dr. Latania Logan, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
The CDC reported more than 65,000 cases of influenza nationwide during the flu season the year before the COVID-19 outbreak (2019-2020), compared to just over 1,000 in the flu season during the pandemic (2020-2021).
Over the last four years, on average, 175 influenza-related pediatric deaths were reported during flu season. During the pandemic, there was just one.
“We have known for a long time actually that wearing masks during those times prevents the transmission of these viruses in the health care setting,” said Logan. “What we're seeing here is the same thing in the community.”
The CDC has relaxed mask-wearing guidelines for kids, but because there is no COVID-19 vaccine authorized for children younger than 12, the American Academy of Pediatrics says unvaccinated children still need to wear masks in certain settings.
For now, masks at the Laurance Armour Day School will continue to be part of the protocol, which could mean fewer germs on the loose for the time being.
“They're given the protocols,” said Walker. “And right now, it's mask-wearing, and that's keeping everyone safe.”