Masks: Science on one side. Parents on other.

Protesters outside of the Cobb County School District office show their opposition to masking children in Cobb County schools for the upcoming school year on Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Marietta, Georgia . Many community members waited in line to speak at the school board meeting to voice their support for unmasking.  CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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Protesters outside of the Cobb County School District office show their opposition to masking children in Cobb County schools for the upcoming school year on Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Marietta, Georgia . Many community members waited in line to speak at the school board meeting to voice their support for unmasking. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

While most Georgia districts are mask-optional, a handful are following CDC guidance

When metro area school districts reopen in early August, most students will not be required to wear masks to combat the spread of COVID-19. And that has pediatricians worried.

In a letter Tuesday to school superintendents, the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, representing more than 1,800 Georgia pediatricians, urged mandatory masks for all students older than 2 and all school staff, regardless of their vaccination status. The letter reaffirmed guidance released a day earlier by the national American Academy of Pediatrics.

While school districts fretted last year that teachers would contract COVID since evidence suggested children were not as susceptible, students are now the focus. Vaccines are now available to protect teachers and older students, but there is no approved immunization yet for children under 12, who represent close to half the U.S. school-age population. (Children’s vaccines trials are underway.)

The delta variant, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says accounts for an estimated 83.2% of recent COVID-19 cases, is far more transmissible than the original virus. It still appears the risk to kids from infections is low, but it’s not zero, as tragically shown by the recent death of 5-year-old Wyatt Gibson of Gordon County, Georgia. And the virus still poses greater danger to children with certain health conditions, including Type 1 diabetes, obesity, cardiac and circulatory congenital anomalies and epilepsy and/or convulsions.

Health professionals are warning that ignoring the ongoing threat from COVID-19 and the rise of infections among younger, unvaccinated people could lead to many more cases and overrun hospitals. With a 40% full vaccination rate, Georgia lags the national average of nearly 49%.

Consider that in Arkansas, a state with a very low vaccination rate and now a soaring COVID infection rate, there are almost as many Arkansans infected with COVID-19 who are 17 or younger as people 65 and older, according to the chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

“These variants are smarter. They’re dangerous,” said Dr. Michelle Nichols, associate dean of family medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine, at a panel Thursday on COVID prevention on the campus. “They’re more infectious.”

“We are in a race against the variants,” said Dr. Lilly Immergluck, a pediatrician and Morehouse professor of immunology, on the same panel. “What we know about coronaviruses in general is that they do mutate. It’s almost like the survival of the fittest. The virus adapts to the environment, to who remains vulnerable.”

That is becoming young people.

Adults must get vaccinated to protect children “so we don’t see the unfortunate stories that we have right now of children under 6 years old dying,” said Nichols. “That is very unfortunate for something that is completely preventable.”

Today, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visited Kelley Lake Elementary School in DeKalb and spoke with parents who said the district’s safety policies, including mandatory masks, allayed their concerns about sending their children back to classrooms amid COVID-19.

Saying she felt “like the school had her back,” Kelley Lake parent Carla Moore explained, “You do have to sit back and think there is a pandemic. At home, as a parent, I remind my children you have to keep your masks on. I already packed their book bags with hand sanitizer and a little bitty can of Lysol. I know the school will reiterate keep your masks on.”

Asked about whether masks should be mandated, Cardona said the decision belongs with health officials, school leaders and communities but encouraged adherence to CDC recommendations, which call for masks indoors for students and staff who are not fully vaccinated.

But some parents in Georgia are skeptical of CDC guidance. So are some superintendents.

In response several days ago to parent email urging him to heed the CDC and require masks, Fulton Superintendent Mike Looney wrote, “While I appreciate the CDC’s recommendations, the truth is their credibility has been tainted during this past year and I no longer feel comfortable following all of their guidance, but now factor in our local data and experiences in the decision-making process.”

At school board meetings in suburban counties earlier this summer, parents compared mandatory masks to child abuse and argued masks are more dangerous for children than COVID.

The acquiescence of school leaders to these viewpoints explains why Georgia and some other states are still being held hostage to this unrelenting virus. Many Georgia districts outside of metro Atlanta never mandated masks and will continue not to do so this year.

Atlanta, Clayton, Decatur, Rockdale, Clarke and the DeKalb systems will require masks for students and staff, but they will be optional in classrooms in Cherokee, Cobb, Forsyth, Paulding, Marietta, Gwinnett and Fulton.

At the Kelley Lake Elementary event where everyone, including Secretary Cardona, Sen. Jon Ossoff and school board members, was masked, the education secretary reassured the crowd, “Masks will eventually come off. I am not saying they will come off this week, but we will evolve out of this.”

That prompted DeKalb Board of Education Chair Vickie B. Turner to tell Cardona, “So many parents are divided here on whether to mask or not to mask. Our superintendent is trying to keep us all safe and is making some hard calls. I wish you could come to our board meetings.”