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Gov. John Bel Edwards takes off his mask before speaking at a press conference in which he addressed the state's COVID-19 situation, including announcing an extension through at least Oct. 27 of the indoor mask mandate, and ongoing Hurricane Ida response, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021 at the State Capitol.

With COVID infections and hospitalizations declining, all signs point to a loosening of pandemic restrictions Tuesday, when Gov. John Bel Edwards will decide whether to extend the indoor mask mandate for another month.

But even if the Democratic governor pulls back on the face covering requirement, a trickier question remains: should he also lift the mask mandate in schools?

UPDATE: Gov. John Bel Edwards lifts Louisiana mask mandate, except for certain K-12 schools

Back in August, when hospitals were buckling under the strain of the delta variant, Louisiana’s pediatricians were unequivocal in their support for a mask mandate for students in K-12 classrooms. But now that the fourth surge has largely subsided, the answer is less clear cut.

“Looking at this objectively, I think that the argument for a mask mandate is far less compelling today than it was back in August,” said Dr. Mark Kline, the physician-in-chief at Children’s Hospital New Orleans and head of pediatrics at LSU Health New Orleans.

A self-described “mask advocate,” Kline said regardless of what the governor decides, parents would still be wise to send their kids to school with masks. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend that teachers, students and staff wear masks in schools.

“For the time being, I wouldn’t change a thing,” Kline said. “But the numbers are down dramatically and the factors that really drove the school mask mandate have really changed radically … It’s a tough call.”

When Edwards reinstated the mask mandate in early August, there were 2,350 patients hospitalized with COVID. On Monday, hospitals counted just 332 COVID patients. 

Dr. John Vanchiere, the immediate past president of the Louisiana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said masking needs to continue in schools until enough children are vaccinated against the deadly virus.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is already authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for anyone 12 or older, and a kid-sized dose of the vaccine could be available by early November for youngsters 5 to 11.

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“The strong feeling among pediatricians is that kids should still be wearing masks until the vaccine rates are substantial in the pediatric population,” said Vanchiere, a pediatrician and director of community testing and vaccination outreach at LSU Health Shreveport

Still, Vanchiere said a one-sized-fits-all mask mandate might not make sense going forward, especially as more children get the jab. He suggested lifting mask mandates in schools that have more than 50% of their students vaccinated and are located in parishes where less than 5% of COVID tests are coming back positive.

“At this point, there are probably some high schools that are vaccinated enough, located in communities where infections are low enough, that could consider unmasking,” Vanchiere said. “This is going to vary from community to community and from school to school.”

Mask-wearing requirements in schools have sparked heated opposition among a vocal group of parents, some of whom have likened face coverings to “child abuse.” In August, they disrupted a meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, causing the top school board to adjourn before considering a proposal that would have bucked the governor’s mandate and allowed school districts to decide on their own whether masks were necessary. 

Vanchiere said those reactions were largely based on emotion, adding that there's no data to suggest masks inhibit the ability to breath. "Wearing masks was far and away the right thing to do to protect children then," he said. 

Complicating Edwards’ decision is a new quarantine policy for students, implemented in late September by State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, that allows parents to choose whether to send their asymptomatic children to school, even after exposure to COVID-19. The updated guidelines were blasted by public health officials, who pointed out that people can spread COVID-19 despite having no symptoms.

“To me, that was a political decision not a decision based on what is in the best interest of the children,” said Vanchiere, who heads up school based COVID testing for much of west and north Louisiana.

In criticizing Brumley's decision, Edwards credited his mask mandate for cutting down on the number of students that need to quarantine. "Because of the mask mandate, it's really only two students on average per positive case that are having to quarantine," Edwards said in early October. 

Edwards met with his public health advisors last week and planned to continue discussions Monday evening, with the goal of signing an executive order midday Tuesday, according to the governor’s spokesperson, Christina Stephens.

“He’s looking at a number of positive signs: decreasing hospitalizations, decreasing cases and decreasing percent positivity in testing,” Stephens said. “That is incredibly promising, but it does not mean that COVID is over.”

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