Coronavirus

Kids caught in the crossfire in debate over masks in schools

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At the end of July, Governor Mills and the Maine CDC issued a recommendation that all K-12 students wear face coverings in school, after the federal CDC shifted its guidance to recommend all adults wear masks in counties with high transmission, regardless of vaccination status.

The Mills administration is also encouraging schools to use their pooled testing program to try to identify outbreaks early. So far, the only mandate on schools, pursuant to a June 30 Declaration of Public Health Emergency by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, is that they report COVID-19 vaccination rates of school staff every month. The first report is due September 10.

This puts Maine among the majority of states which allow school districts to make their own policies related to mask-wearing. According to the Burbio.com School Mask Policy Tracker, currently 19 states do not allow local decision-making: 11 mandate mask-wearing in all schools and 8 have a blanket ban.

Following the CDC’s recent vandalism of science on the Delta variant, Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions, quickly jumped on board the push for universal school mask mandates. Last week, the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) members also voted to recommend mandatory masks for all students in the state, from pre-K through college. 

Individual teachers have another mechanism to influence district policy through their union. Scott Latham, a Massachusetts school teacher and MTA member, shared his frustration publicly in response to his union’s recent vote:

Teachers, staff, and administrators have seen firsthand how these policies can negatively affect students, and they can withdraw their financial support if they disagree with their union’s stance. Just as parents can withdraw their children from the school district, school staff have a right to voice their concerns as public-sector workers. They can draw a clear line in the sand, and back it up with dollars and cents.

Thankfully, the Maine Education Association, a union which represents the vast majority of Maine K-12 public school teachers, last week released a statement which seemed to shy away from pushing broad mandates on students and faculty. While they believe that all schools in Maine, even colleges and universities, “should follow, at a minimum, all of the recommendations of the experts at the Maine Center for Disease Control,” the conclusion of their statement recognizes that “the recommendations for the mitigation strategies such as wearing masks, etc., are just that—recommendations.  Each school district will be making decisions regarding these recommendations.”

As the start of the school year quickly approaches, some districts have begun to debate their COVID mitigation policies, while some have already determined their path. It appears that the vast majority of districts—if not all—will offer 5 days a week of in-person learning to their students, with some remote options for those with medical exemptions.

We must keep in mind that young people face an incredibly low risk of contracting a severe case of COVID-19 and sustaining long-term effects after infection, and weigh that against the downsides of broad mandates. The latest Maine CDC data paint a clear picture. Those under 20 make up nearly 20% of all cases of COVID-19 in the state, but only one case was fatal, making up just 0.11% of all deaths attributed to the virus. Among Mainers under 40 who come down with COVID-19, over 99.98% survive. This does not control for preexisting health conditions, previous infection, or vaccination status because Maine CDC either does not track or does not publicly release these figures.

A recent document published by Maine CDC covered the number of cases and hospitalizations among Mainers under 25 for COVID-19. They report 49 total hospitalizations among 20,672 cases for this age group, a hospitalization rate of 0.24%. There is no other way to verify this based on publicly released information, since the state dashboard splits out age groups differently (0-19, 20s, 30s, 40s, etc.) and does not provide hospitalization numbers by age group, only by county.

University of Washington researchers published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics this June looked at 555 SARS-CoV-2–positive study participants, 123 of which were children, and found the rate of asymptomatic cases among children to be much higher: 38.2% versus just 7.2% of adults. Also, they found that “when symptomatic, fewer symptoms were reported in children compared with adults.” They also confirmed that viral loads were lower in asymptomatic cases compared to those with symptoms in both children and adults.

CDC-published studies on in-school transmission compared to the larger community have consistently shown lower spread with schools. Yet, it is difficult to find suitable data comparing in-person learning with masking versus without masking. The studies cited for claims that loose mask protocol or removing masks caused school outbreaks provide tenuous links at best. Aggregated data from thousands of school districts across the US suggest little-to-no-benefit of distancing and mask-wearing mandates in school.

Unfortunately, of the $42 billion annual budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2020, only 5.7% was used to study COVID-19, but no grants were made to study the effects of masks on kids. Yet, Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of NIH, continues to advocate for universal mask-wearing in schools.

This policy comes with its own costs, though. In a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed published Sunday, Dr. Marty Makary, professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and Dr. H. Cody Meissner, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Tufts Children’s Hospital, made their “case against masks for children.” They focused not only on developmental impact, but noting that masks can themselves be vectors for disease if used improperly or for too long, arguing in part that forced mask-wearing is “abusive to force kids who struggle with them to sacrifice for the sake of unvaccinated adults.”

“The possible psychological harm of widespread masking is an even greater worry. Facial expressions are integral to human connection, particularly for young children, who are only learning how to signal fear, confusion and happiness. Covering a child’s face mutes these nonverbal forms of communication and can result in robotic and emotionless interactions, anxiety and depression…The adverse developmental effects of requiring masks for a few weeks are probably minor. We can’t say that with any confidence when the practice stretches on for months or years.”

Dr. Marty Makary and Dr. H. Cody Meissner, The Wall Street Journal

Makary and Meissner point to numerous other mitigation strategies that school leaders may employ to attempt to tamp down on the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in their classrooms: improved ventilation, podding or cohorting students, utilizing outdoor spaces for learning whenever possible, and offering a remote learning option to encourage students to stay home if they don’t feel well.

Yet, Maine K-12 schools have spent just 3.8% of the more than $500 million dollars in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds they have received from DC for this exact purpose. This money—more than $2,500 per pupil—could be used to install and implement some of the mitigation strategies mentioned, with a goal to make school as normal as possible for students, first and foremost. What could be a more vital use of these funds?

Given the potential for disruption to personal and social development, and the very low risk of contracting serious COVID-19 illness, we must be very skeptical of mandates which impact a normal learning environment, especially for younger children. Until we have controlled studies showing significant effects on viral transmission in schools, we must not ignore the potential risks and plunge the youth (who cannot vote) headlong into another year of uncertainty.

As rational observers have urged since spring 2020, the projected benefits of policymaking must always be measured against the potential costs. Today, some of the effects of our myopic approach are known: years of lost learning, deteriorating mental health, heightened abuse, poverty, and food insecurity from politicians’ misguided lockdowns and school closures have plagued the youth of the world for the last year or more, sadly far worse than has SARS-CoV-2.

Nearly a year and a half from the first round of lockdowns, vaccines which greatly reduce the risk of severe illness and death are broadly available, and a vast amount of knowledge has been accumulated on SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 showing us that children are at a much, much lower risk from it than many other things considered normal risks of childhood. Indeed, for them, and for most of us, the new risk posed by the existence of SARS-CoV-2, though real, is an increasingly small one. Thankfully, more than 87% of Mainers over 60, those who are most at risk, have taken the step to better protect themselves by taking a COVID-19 vaccine.

Simply, there is no more excuse to force children to continue to fear a disease for which all adults have access to effective vaccines and treatment, and one that is not a significant danger to young, healthy people. The damage already done to the cognitive, physical, and emotional development of future generations cannot yet be quantified. We must finally end this unethical, unscientific experimentation on the young, reach full, pre-pandemic normalcy, and attempt to mend our fragile social order which is already fraying at the seams.

Do you oppose mask mandates in Maine schools? Sign the petition!

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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