With mask restrictions loosening across the country, parents with children too young to be vaccinated are facing a conundrum.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance last week that fully vaccinate people can shed their masks in most outdoor and indoor settings, has caught some off guard and left wondering what they should do around their kids.

The importance of masking and social distancing over the past year has focused largely on those 60 and older, who are at the greatest risk of experiencing severe consequences of the coronavirus. Now with vaccinations climbing — nearly half of Washington has received at least one dose — young children under 12 who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated, have become among the least protected.

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Last week, The Seattle Times put out a callout asking to hear from parents with unvaccinated children and what they think of the changing mask guidelines and how it will affect their behavior. 

More than 70 people, most living near Puget Sound, responded. The verdict was resounding: Not much is changing. 

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For some, that decision is about modeling good behavior for children who still have to wear masks. Other parents were a bit more pragmatic — children will be less willing to wear masks if they see their parents aren’t doing so.

“How is my two year old supposed to keep her mask on if everyone else isn’t?” Valerie Tung said. “She is just starting to get used to it.”

Parents also said they are worried the new guidelines mean those who refuse to be vaccinated and don’t wear masks, won’t be discernible and will be more likely to infect children.

“Going into places like Costco now makes me nervous about unmasked people who aren’t vaxxed.” said Sarah Dean, a mother of four children.

Stephanie Parkin, who has unvaccinated children and works with children at a church, said there won’t be social penalties anymore for those who don’t wear masks. Her church is continuing to require masks and she hopes other businesses will follow suit.

What do the experts say?

The CDC made the recommendation to loosen mask guidelines citing the mounting data that shows fully vaccinated people are far less likely to transmit the virus even if they become infected, said Danielle Zerr, a pediatrician and professor at Seattle Children’s who studies infectious diseases in children.

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The likelihood of a breakthrough infection is also incredibly low and vaccines authorized for adults in the United States have shown to be about 95% effective. (Pfizer is the only vaccine authorized for children aged 12 years or older.)

Children can contract the virus, though their risk of severe consequences are much lower than adults, Zerr said. There’s some evidence that suggests children are also less likely to transmit the disease, she said. Someone who is less symptomatic and coughing less, is less likely to spray respiratory droplets, she said.

The CDC says that there is some evidence from contract-tracing studies and other data that suggests that children under 10 may be less likely to be infected. While outbreaks have occurred in schools, the CDC said preventive measures like masking can significantly decrease the likelihood. 

Children have shown they are adaptable and can be good at masking, Zerr said, but research shows that good modeling and planning for consequences has to be a part of the equation.

Zerr plans to continue to wear a mask indoors, partly because she works in a health care facility and because she is a parent. As public-health officials clarify mask guidelines and adults make decisions about their own activities, she said people should consider potential impacts their actions could have on children.

Parents face tough choices

Kelly Hall, 34, who has a 7-year-old daughter in Olympia, said she has seen reports of kids who have gotten the coronavirus and tries to follow guidance from the CDC. But there hasn’t been enough guidelines on what children can do and what their risks are, she said. 

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Recently, her neighborhood play group has agreed to allow their children to take off their masks while playing outside. Hall said her daughter also takes off a mask while hiking outdoors. 

But situations like allowing her daughter to play with other kids inside without masks or walking on a crowded sidewalk, are more confusing, she said. Her daughter is in school four days a week, but this summer she’s not going to summer camps. Having to wear a mask for eight hours a day would be too miserable, Hall said.

“I think my worst-case scenario for her is that she would get it and pass it along to all her neighborhood friends,” she said. “That we would basically have a mini outbreak with a bunch of sick little kids.”

For Walker Lockhart, 47, most of his family is vaccinated, including his 14-year-old twins, who each have a shot of the Pfizer vaccine. It’s just his 8-year-old son who is too young to receive one. His twins have decided to continue wearing masks, even when they play sports with friends, he said.

Lockhart said the new guidance has been heartening and he is comfortable not wearing a mask inside for certain situations because he is fully vaccinated. However, he knows that many are still hesitant to give up face coverings. 

At his local grocery store in Ballard, a sign in the front reads: “Masked or Vaxed.” The neighborhood is nearly 70% vaccinated, he said, but inside, nearly everyone wears a mask while shopping.

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“The idea of the mask has been this visual expression that you’re taking care of other people and that you care about people in your community,” he said. 

Lockhart says if he was walking through a crowded place like Pike Place Market, he would still wear a mask if he was with his youngest.

“You want to show some solidarity,” he said.

What other parents are saying about the new guidance

Sophia Shiau, a mother of two children under 12, is a pediatrician where the majority of her patients are too young to be vaccinated.

“I plan to continue masking in indoor public places to help protect this large, vulnerable sector of our population,” she said.

The new guidance feels “too much too soon” for Sarah Kent, who has a 12- and nine-year-old.

“The great unmasking has us all feeling stressed about where it will be safe to take our kids this summer.”

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The masking change meaning trusting the public for the safety of her two kids, Tracy Schreiber said.

“The new guidance closes our world,” she said. “Whereas before, there was some community safety.”

Kathleen Lonergan questions how she can trust her child’s health to an honor system with no accountability. Her family will continue to wear masks anywhere there are children.

Celeste Lykken said just her 9-year-old is not vaccinated in her family of four. She said she is waiting for her youngest to get vaccinated and community spread to decrease before going to movie theaters or eating indoors.

Amanda Sawyer said masking and testing is still a large part of her life. Her 2-year-old has been wearing a mask for four months at day care and would need a negative test should she show any symptoms.

“We are still in the thick of it,” she said.