Decisions on masking schoolchildren belong to parents

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The dominoes are falling. 

In just the last month, public leaders of numerous (though not all) European countries, the nation of Israel, as well as some Republican-led US states such as Virginia and Iowa have moved to remove much or all of their remaining public COVID restrictions.

On Monday, a suite of Democrat-led coastal states followed suit. Governors of New JerseyDelaware, Connecticut, Oregon, and California outlined pathways to remove mask mandates in their states, for school-age children and the general public, but these “off-ramps” vary. New York also joined the chorus earlier this week.

Governor Gavin Newsom of California announced that the state’s public indoor mask mandate would expire soon, on February 15, but added that “unvaccinated people [about 20% of residents] must still wear masks in indoor public settings.” Governors of Connecticut, New Jersey, Oregon, and Delaware plan to remove their mandates on schools and child care facilities at various times between the end of February and the end of March.

Something seems to have changed. Even many often pandemic-weary commentators and politicians have begun to question the utility of these policies over the last few weeks. 

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg called for an end to masking children in a recent Op-Ed: “For almost 2 years, many of us told our children that once they were vaccinated, they could reclaim many of the ordinary joys they’d sacrificed. Omicron postponed that…. It shouldn’t be postponed a moment longer than necessary.”

Dr. Leana Wen, emergency physician, Georgetown professor and CNN medical contributor, has been an outspoken advocate for masking, testing, isolation, and other pandemic mandates for children since 2020. But even she has changed her tune, recently expressing the fear that public health officials have lost the public: “The CDC has already lost a lot of trust and credibility. This is their time to rebuild and remove restrictions as quickly as they were put in.”

Wen and the blue state governors are using the same rationale to come back to reality: “the science has changed,” so now, the choice to mask should shift to families, they argue. No doubt that Omicron has certainly changed the dynamics of the virus that causes COVID-19, but has the science of mask-wearing changed?

A massive dataset collected over 2020 and 2021 which tracked rates of transmission among schools show no significant difference related to the local community, whether a mask mandate was in place or not. Keep in mind that this data was collected during Alpha and Delta variant dominance. Quite often, the studies cited by CDC and other mask proponents don’t even have an unmasked control group from which to measure the extent of the intervention.

Due to the lack of a declared Civil State of Emergency, Maine does not currently have a statewide mask mandate. Still, the Department of Education and Maine CDC, through their “Standard Operating Procedure” document, implicitly direct school boards to continue outdated and nonsensically layered restrictions.

Due to Maine CDC’s persistent backlog of positive tests to analyze and report, national estimates suggest that coronavirus infections are waning significantly in nearly every state across the country except Maine. More likely, the reality is that Maine is not an outlier. Our state agencies have shown that they cannot accurately report public health data, and now Omicron is leaving them in the dust. 

The recent Maine CDC effort to ramp up wastewater testing around the state appears to be too little, too late, since the most comprehensive datasets we have, such as those from the Town of Yarmouth, show us that the Omicron wave has passed its peak.

Just recently has Dr. Shah downplayed the importance of testing and case numbers, but staying true to this administration’s form, no sooner did messaging and policy change when they could no longer cover their hides.

While school boards hold the ultimate power to dictate school policy, state officials must signal that it is the time to relax the rules placed on school children. The truth is they have been in place for far too long already, especially since most of Europe did not alter schooling in the past year, with similar resulting infection and disease among the population. 

Pressure is strong from the state to conform to CDC guidance. In many ways, this gives school board members an easy out: they say that they are merely following state leadership. Realistically, they would have probably received more flak from parents for leading their own path and departing from state guidance than just following it. For better or for worse, many won’t ever change their outdated policy while the state maintains theirs.

Parents must always have the opportunity to express their thoughts and hold their local school board members accountable, but Governor Mills and her administration can change this trajectory in their own way. Just like Dr. Shah announced the end of contact tracing last week, the other ineffective and costly interventions we have wielded on the youth must end as soon as possible.

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