How Should Parents of Young Kids Navigate the New Mask Rules? A Pediatrician Weighs In

“The short answer is, yes, kids will still need to be masked until they can be fully vaccinated,” says emergency room pediatrician Dr. Elizabeth Murray

child wearing mask
A mom helps her child put on a mask. Photo: Getty

The Centers for Disease Control's new guidance allowing fully vaccinated people to go without masks outdoors and in most indoor settings was welcome news for many Americans, but a worrisome change for parents of kids under the age of 12, who aren't yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

While ideally, only those who are fully vaccinated and unlikely to contract or spread COVID-19 will go unmasked, the new recommendations "relies on the honor system, meaning we have to trust that people who are not wearing masks are truly vaccinated," says Dr. Elizabeth Murray, a pediatrician specializing in Pediatric Emergency Medicine and Child Health Advocacy and a member of PEOPLE's Health Squad.

With many parents concerned that their child could be exposed to an unmasked, unvaccinated person with COVID-19, Murray — who has two daughters aged 11 and 4 who can't yet get vaccinated — weighs in on what they can do to keep their kids protected.

The new mask rules say it's safe for fully vaccinated people to go without a mask — should we expect that kids have to keep them on until they can get vaccinated?

"The short answer is, yes, kids will still need to be masked until they can be fully vaccinated," Murray says.

She emphasizes, though, that under the new guidelines there are just a few locations where vaccinated people can go without their masks. "Health care facilities and schools are two of the main places where masking will still be needed. Further, each state and local government can choose the rules that are best for their community."

Should parents avoid taking unvaccinated kids to grocery stores and malls and other places where people will be unmasked?

"Parents should continue to follow what is safest for their family," Murray says. "Each family has its own risk factors, and should look at the disease prevalence in their community. If children do go to crowded places, such as grocery stores, they should still be masked. Many communities still have very high rates of COVID-19."

She also points to the "dramatically" growing number of COVID-19 cases in children.

"Last year at this time about 3% of the COVID-19 cases were in children. As of last week, it was about 24% of the cases," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

When you're hanging out with other families where some people will be vaccinated and others may not be, should kids remain masked?

"Yes, unvaccinated kids should still be masked in most situations," Murray says. "If your family is low risk and your child is playing outside with one or two other children, you may decide that masks aren't needed. That is a personal risk decision you need to make for your child and family." But, she adds, consider that "if your child attends a birthday party and it starts raining and all 15 kids at the party have to come inside, they should all wear masks."

RELATED VIDEO: Vaccinated Americans Can Now Go Without Masks in Most Indoor and Outdoor Places, CDC Says

Would you avoid taking kids on vacations and traveling now with this new guidance?

"My concern with the new guidelines is that it relies on the honor system. Unfortunately, when you look at social media, you can see that many people who actively are choosing to not be vaccinated are also against wearing masks," Murray says. "Since we know that children can definitely get COVID-19, we still need to take the same steps to protect them. Until more of the population is vaccinated, I recommend families choose vacations carefully to avoid large crowds."

How can you talk to your kids if they don't want to wear a mask anymore because other people don't have to?

For Murray, the new guidance is personal. "Neither of my children are old enough to be vaccinated yet, so my family will all remain masked," she says. "As a parent, if I model the behavior, it's much easier for my 4 year old to understand why it is important."

"My number one tip to parents is to continue masking yourself when you are out with your children. Kids in school are used to wearing masks and that environment won't likely change for them until more children are vaccinated, so most of the child's day, in school, won't look any different to them."

And if parents have more questions about masks or the COVID-19 vaccine, Murray encourages them to talk to their pediatrician or family doctor. "They know you and your child best and are the top resource for factual information."

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