Commentary

Mask rules persist for children in Maine schools. Why?

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On Monday, May 24, nearly eight months after it was first ordered, Maine Gov. Janet Mills lifted the state’s universal face covering mandate. Mills announced the change 10 days prior, after the US CDC revised its guidance for vaccinated adults. The agency now suggests this population may no longer wear a face covering in public due to a much lower risk of severe COVID-19 illness.

Because of this long overdue move by Mills, Maine businesses can finally set their own mask policies instead of being the state’s “COVID police.” For many Mainers, this feels like the last vestige of pandemic-inspired governmental overreach. 

But, there remains one big caveat in Mills’ mask mandate. 

Her executive order still requires children ages 5 and older to wear face coverings in schools and child care settings, despite questionable conclusions that face covering mandates significantly limit incidence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in these contexts.

Alas, Gov. Mills still requires schools to keep these same children masked and separated, even after recognizing the mandate for adults is no longer useful.

Last week, 19 Maine legislators sent a letter to the governor pointing out this apparent contradiction of science and common sense. They urged her to remove the mask requirement for children, writing that continuing it is “no longer defensible.” 

Fortunately, summer camps and youth sports in Maine, mostly outdoor activities which encourage exercise and camaraderie, are finally exempt from this onerous edict. Mainers never needed to be ordered by the governor to wear masks, anyway. Between 85 and 95% of us have been wearing masks in public since it was recommended by public health leaders at the beginning of the pandemic.

Risks to children from contracting COVID-19 remain very low. Incidence of infectivity among the young population is significantly lower than among adults. This follows for risk of hospitalization and death among the youth as well. The CDC estimates that the risk of hospitalization for young people between ages 5 and 17 to be 65 times less than that of adults over the age of 75. Even so, these numbers may be exaggerated. 

Commentary published in the journal Hospital Pediatrics in May 2021 by Drs. Monica Gandhi and Amy Beck addressed two studies that shine a light on potentially questionable data collection on youth hospitalizations. One study from northern California found that 45% of pediatric hospitalizations “were unlikely to be caused by SARS-CoV-2” and that 46% of those patients coded for the virus were asymptomatic. Another found 40% had an “incidental” diagnosis, meaning that the young patient was not documented to have COVID-19 symptoms prior to hospitalization.

While any premature death is tragic, according to a CDC review of death certificates, children under 18 made up less than 0.05% of COVID-related deaths in 2020. They are 3,200 times less likely to die from COVID-19 than those aged 75 or older, and 1,300 times less likely than those aged 65 to 74. Indeed, the risks are very low for children comparatively, but many lockdowners will complain that, since they are not approved to take the vaccines, they can still spread the virus to vulnerable adults.

This message of fear persists, despite nearly 40% of the total US population, and nearly three-quarters of all Americans over 65, being fully vaccinated. These numbers are even higher in Maine, with more than 50% of the total population, and more than 86% of those aged 70 and older, fully vaccinated. There is no excuse for adults to force children to live in fear of a pandemic for which nearly all adults have access to effective vaccines and treatment, and one that is objectively not dangerous for the young and healthy.

As observers like myself have urged since last spring, perceived benefits must be measured against the potential costs of myopic policy making. Now, we have hard data. Lost learningdeteriorating mental health, and heightened abusepoverty, and food insecurity have plagued the youth of the world for the last year or more, sadly far worse than has the virus.

What is the path back to normal for the millions of young lives upended over the last 15 months? In December, the US CDC estimated that schools in the US would need about $23 billion to implement measures for safe school reopenings. All in all, Americans’ K-12 schools received more than $50 billion for this cause. 

Just in Maine, schools are sitting on $220 million of federal money through Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) disbursements. Only 3% has been spent. At the end of November 2020, only 4.5% of the funds that had arrived had been spent. This means that today, districts and the state Department of Education still have more than $1,200 per student to spend on safe reopenings.

This does not count the additional $411 million coming from the most recent federal spending package, which has yet to be tracked. All told, Maine elementary and secondary schools will receive more than $600 million in federal tax dollars to rebound from the pandemic. Governor Mills is also dedicating $187 million more in state funds to Maine’s K-12 schools in her current supplemental budget proposal.

How much more is needed to return to the quality education we have promised our youth? The education they received before the pandemic? In-person instruction is not only safe, it is crucial. With the many troubles facing the next generation, by continuing to inhibit their educational and social development, our society is prolonging the psychological abuse of the pandemic mindset.

Our “leaders” refuse to acknowledge that it is the responsibility of adults, not children, to deliver us from this dreadful saga. It is time to face the science, end the state of emergency and the abuse of young children in Maine. 

About Nick Murray

Nick Murray, of Cornish, currently serves as Policy Analyst with Maine Policy Institute, writing, researching, and bringing Mainers together over the issues facing the state. Previously, he served as Outreach Coordinator, planning events to spread the word about Maine Policy's work to new audiences around Maine.

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