In places all over the world, children attend school without mask mandates. Students in Denmark have been maskless since May 2020. France doesn’t require them for kids under 11 years old, and in Ireland it’s under 9. Schools in Norway and Sweden go without masks entirely. In the UK, Kate Middleton does uncontroversial visits to primary schools and mingles with the unmasked youth.
The World Health Organization explicitly recommends against masking for kids under 5 and Europe’s equivalent of the CDC recommends against masking primary school children at all.
The presumption among most health agencies in Europe has been that blanket mask mandates for young children are inappropriate for a cohort that, unlike adults, is unlikely to either face danger from COVID or wear masks correctly. There’s also the consideration of the “potential impact of wearing a mask on learning and psychosocial development.”
That does not mean they face no risk, of course. COVID-19 remains a threat to immunocompromised kids, and some families worry about students bringing home the virus to more vulnerable adults. It is the job of policy-makers to balance those very real concerns with the growing evidence that draconian COVID-era policies for children cause other harm.
The CDC’s recommendation to start masking at 2 years of age and universally mask elementary school students is an outlier in the Western world, but those who advocate for it rarely account for why.
In Northern Virginia, dedication to that standard led seven districts to sue newly elected Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin this week to keep mask mandates, following his executive order which gave discretion to parents. Some parents think the policy doesn’t take into account their own freedom to choose, or acknowledge the downsides for their kids.
Given the divergence with so much of the world on this hot-button issue, one would assume the CDC, and these schools, rely on copious research about efficacy of masks in young children. A big, disruptive intervention should obviously be demonstrably effective to be justified as necessary. But the push to universally mask our youngest, and therefore least at-risk of COVID, is characterized by surprisingly little study and data.
Such rigor was certainly missing last week in a Fairfax County Zoom town hall to discuss the schools’ masking policies, attended by almost 4,000 people.
Two years into the pandemic, one could be forgiven for assuming this meeting took place in March 2020. Local pediatrician Russell Libby spoke at the board’s behest, where he said it was important for kids to mask so they wouldn’t kill their grandmas.
“Kids carry that kind of guilt if they thought they brought something home to their families that infected someone, that killed someone!” Libby said. “The potential for harm [from unmasked students] is so much greater than the potential for good.”
This was the same argument mounted for closing schools in the area to in-person learning for over a year, which most now concede was a developmental and emotional disaster for kids.
There was little acknowledgement that vaccines are widely and freely available to protect exactly those grandmas in a way that did not exist in 2020. Fairfax County’s adult population is 80 percent vaccinated. There was no discussion of the mounting evidence of the emotional and developmental downsides of masking, particularly for young children. There was no examination of data from places where young children are not asked to mask, or why the Fairfax school system was able to stay open during the fall while its thousands of students wore ineffective Old Navy handkerchiefs on their faces during a surge.
Instead, school officials showed a slide congratulating Fairfax students on their superb mask compliance and discussed their detailed plan to “foster compliance” among those with difficulties. The message from area school leaders depends on well-worn appeals to safety and the idea that any mask is better than no mask.
“It’s an awfully thin reed on which to rest this policy that applies universally across the board regardless of vaccination status, regardless of case spread in the community, regardless of any evidence of transmission within a school or not, and without regard to any downsides at all,” said one Arlington parent who wished to remain anonymous to prevent retribution in the community. “I think it’s ridiculous.”
There are a grand total of two randomized controlled trials on masking—one conducted in Denmark in 2020, which did not find a statistically significant reduction in infection among surgical mask wearers over the control group and a now-famous study from rural Bangladesh, which showed surgical masks had an impact over cloth masks, particularly in reducing symptomatic cases in the population over 60.
Beyond these, which did not study school settings, the CDC offered its own large-scale study of elementary school students in Georgia, which tested different mitigation strategies, finding that masking unvaccinated teachers and good ventilation were most helpful, but also detected “a student-masking requirement not having a statistical impact”—a finding notably left out of the study’s summary.
In fall 2021, CDC director Rochelle Walensky publicly touted a study of about 1,000 schools in Arizona, which yielded an impressive statistic that became an important part of the CDC’s universal kid-masking recommendation. “Schools in two Arizona counties [without] a mask requirement were 3.5 times more likely to have a #COVID19 outbreak than schools requiring masks from the start of the school year,” the agency tweeted, an assertion repeated by Walensky on the Sunday political shows and echoed by the White House.
That study’s methodology and results have been publicly panned by some experts, who are concerned that it did not control for vaccination status in the community, compared unequal time periods for masked and unmasked school districts, and may have included data from non-school settings by accident.
There are also various studies of masks in schools in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and other states—but none of them separate masks from other mitigation measures or have a control group of unmasked students with which to compare results.
Here in the U.S., 35 percent of the country’s biggest school districts do not have mask mandates, while the CDC recently revised its mask recommendations, acknowledging that cloth masks—often favored by school-aged kids—are “least protective” in stopping COVID.
“If it was working…that would be one thing,” said Jessica Mendez, a Loudoun County mom whose two daughters want to opt out of mask-wearing. “But it’s not working now, the cloth masks aren’t working, so why are we continuing this charade?”
To some parents it feels like déjà vu. They learned the hard way that draconian COVID interventions meant to keep children safe can actually hurt them. Northern Virginia’s schools were closed to in-person learning for a full year, from March 2020 until well into 2021. Then, as now, local leaders were ultra-cautious and seemingly impervious to changing science and cost-benefit analysis.
The results of that decision were devastating, causing failing grades to jump by as much as 83 percent and more than 10,000 students to leave Fairfax, a formerly celebrated school district. Arlington Public schools saw crucial early literacy numbers drop dramatically during virtual learning, with disproportionate impact among minority students, English language learners, and those with disabilities. Alexandria’s public schools lost enrollment for the first time in 14 years and implemented mandatory summer school to cope with severe learning loss. The number of students who passed state math assessments in Loudoun County was down by almost 20 percentage points.
“Didn’t they learn from last time?” asked Fairfax mom Lacy Miske, whose first-grader wants to opt out of masking, in part because of difficulties during speech therapy. “As parents we’re looking at the risks and benefits, and we’re making an assessment…feeling that our kids are falling behind due to the mask wearing in ways we can’t even calculate.”
The same people who asked parents to trust them when they closed school doors to students for a year, with catastrophic results, are now asking them to trust them again when they say universal masking for young children is important enough that it will outweigh any potential damage done by masks.
Until leaders start making the case and taking potential risks seriously, why should they be trusted?