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'If it's your child, it should be your choice': Rallies across Washington call for end to school mask mandates

Organizers are calling on officials to rethink mask mandates for students, but health officials warn of rising numbers of pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations.

ORTING, Wash. — The start of the school year is right around the corner for most students across Washington.

As they collect supplies and get ready for the year, some parents think one item on the list of must-haves for school this year is wrong: face masks. 

An “Unmask our Kids” rally is planned for Wednesday evening in Orting and is one of many happening in cities around the state.

Organizers are calling on officials to rethink mask mandates for students this year.

Rick Slaughter runs an organization called “Orting Residents for Choice” and helped organize the rally.

He told KING 5 he thinks masks are not only a distraction for students but can be harmful to their overall education and health, as well as mental health in the classroom.

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“If it's your child, it should be your choice. And along with the whole 'my body my choice' too. You know, it goes along the same lines,” he said.

While he personally doesn’t believe kids should have to wear masks, he says he doesn’t think they should be outright banned but instead he wants parents be given an option.

“There isn't anybody in our organization that's trying to say we should ban masks. We're trying to say some parents who are vaccinated, maybe they don't want their kids to wear the mask, we just want to be able to have that choice,” he explained.

Dr. Seth Cohen is the Medical Director for Infection Prevention at UW Medicine and said since kids under the age of 12 cannot get the COVID-19 vaccine yet, masks are still the frontline defense in protecting them from the virus.

“As kids return to the classroom, they will be highly vulnerable. And not just for COVID, but for other respiratory viruses. And so masks protect both the child who's wearing the mask as well as the other people around that child," he said, adding that the delta variant of COVID-19 makes it even more vital to protect children.

“Even though a lot of these infections in children are very mild, we are seeing an alarming spike in pediatric hospitalizations around the country," he continued. "And many of these hospitalizations may have been preventable with improved mask-wearing or adherence to the rest of those layers of precautions."

Slaughter said mask mandates in schools are sure to lead to bigger issues down the road.

“Should we still practice these safety protocols? Absolutely. But am I really worried about the children? First off, I don't personally know of a single child that has died of COVID. I don't know anybody that knows somebody that has a child that has died from COVID. So, if what we do know is the risk of death is very, very low, I think the children should get an exemption,” Slaughter said, “This is going to be a bigger issue. You're going to see teachers walk off the job, you're going to see an enrollment drop. We're already seeing it.”

Although COVID-19 deaths among kids are rare in Washington state, it has happened. As of Aug. 16, kids and teens accounted for 0.2% of COVID-19 deaths, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

The “Unmask Our Kids" rally in Orting starts at 5 p.m. at the fountain on Calistoga St. W and Washington Ave. S.