The Department of Education this week announced investigations of five states that have told public schools they may not force students to wear face masks as a safeguard against COVID-19. Because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended "universal masking" in K–12 schools, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona says, those states may be violating federal laws that ban discrimination against people with disabilities. Among other things, that argument assumes a nonexistent scientific consensus that mask mandates in schools are a minimum requirement for resuming in-person instruction.
If you are a regular reader of The New York Times, you could be forgiven for thinking that resistance to mask mandates is irrational at best and crassly partisan at worst, sacrificing the safety of children to score cheap political points. "Many states have urged localities to return to in-person schooling while promoting policies that conflict with the goal of educating young people in safety," the paper lamented in a recent editorial. "As of early August, only 29 states had recommended that students wear masks—down from the 44 states that did so last fall—and nine states had banned masking requirements." The Times commended President Joe Biden for taking "the right approach" by using the Education Department's "broad authority" to "deter the states from barring universal masking in classrooms."
Times columnist Jamelle Bouie cites opposition to school mask mandates by Republicans such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott as evidence that Republicans do not "actually want the pandemic to end." In a Times opinion piece published earlier this month, Duke University pediatrician Kanecia Zimmerman and
The Times even ran an essay in which University of Louisville research psychologist Judith Danovitch took it for granted that all sensible, scientifically informed people recognize that mask mandates are necessary, then proceeded to argue that such requirements have secondary, character-building benefits. They instill self-discipline, she argued, and deter kids from biting their nails or picking their noses.
The pro-mandate position also pervades news coverage of the issue in the Times. Here is the opening sentence of a story published today: "As a new coronavirus wave accelerated by the Delta variant spreads across the United States, many Republican governors have taken sweeping action to combat what they see as an even more urgent danger posed by the pandemic: the threat to personal freedom." That is a pretty glib way to dismiss the substantial burdens imposed by mask mandates, which add daylong discomfort and anxiety to an environment that was not exactly fun to begin with, distract teachers and students who must enforce and comply with the rule, and interfere with learning, communication, and social interaction.
To its credit, the Times also has made room for dissenting voices, such as Boston University epidemiologist Helen Jenkins and Joseph Allen, director of the healthy buildings program at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "In Britain the government doesn't require masks for children in schools," they note in an essay published yesterday. "Britain has experts, as we do, and they are looking at the same scientific data we are; they most assuredly care about children's health the same way we do, and yet, they have come to a different policy decision. Schools were prioritized over other activities, and the risks of transmission without masks were considered acceptable."
Times reporter Dana Goldstein describes the British experience in a recent story with a headline that must have come as a shock to many of the paper's readers: "In Britain, Young Children Don't Wear Masks in School." Contrary to the implication, older students are not required to wear masks either. "Face coverings are no longer advised for pupils, staff and visitors either in classrooms or in communal areas," the British Department of Education says.
"Under the government guidelines," Goldstein reports, "masks in classrooms were required only for discrete periods in secondary schools, the equivalent of middle and high school, and were never required for elementary-age children." And unlike in the United States, where school mask mandates have generated bitter partisan fights, "both the Conservative and Labour Parties have generally believed that face coverings hinder young children's ability to communicate, socialize and learn."
Shamez Ladhani, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at St. George's Hospital in London, tells Goldstein "the U.K. has always, from the beginning, emphasized they do not see a place for face coverings for children if it's avoidable." The costs of forcing children to wear masks exceed the likely benefits, he says, because the ability to see faces is "important for the social development and interaction between people."
The public health disaster that you might expect based on the position taken by the CDC, the U.S. Education Department, the Times editorial board, and commentators such as Bouie has not transpired in the U.K., Goldstein notes:
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how much spread occurred on campuses. But throughout the pandemic, government studies showed that infection rates in schools did not exceed those in the community at large, Dr. Ladhani said. In schools that experienced multiple virus cases, he added, there were often "multiple introductions"—meaning that infections were likely acquired outside the building.
There is debate about whether the end of the school year in mid-July contributed to the nation's drop in virus cases, but some researchers point out that the decline began before schools closed.
Instead of mandating masks, Goldstein says, the British government has "focused on other safety measures," including rapid testing to identify carriers and quarantining their close contacts. Allen and Jenkins note that the impact of quarantines can be minimized by "allowing kids who test negative to go to in-person class rather than mass quarantining hundreds or thousands of children."
A randomized study of British secondary schools and colleges, conducted after the emergence of the delta variant, found that strategy was as effective as mass quarantines. "Though the daily testing regimen was challenging for some schools to carry out," Goldstein says, "the results were reassuring: In both the quarantine and test groups, less than 2 percent of the contacts tested positive for Covid-19." The researchers concluded that "daily contact testing is a safe alternative to home isolation following school-based exposures."
The U.K. is by no means unique in eschewing "universal masking" in schools. As David Zweig notes in New York magazine, "many of America's peer nations around the world—including the U.K., Ireland, all of Scandinavia, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy—have exempted kids, with varying age cutoffs, from wearing masks in classrooms" without experiencing more school-related COVID-19 outbreaks than the U.S. has seen.
Allen and Jenkins note that "disease severity for a vast majority of kids is low." According to the CDC's "current best estimate," the infection fatality rate for people younger than 18 is 0.002 percent.
Allen and Jenkins do not take a firm position for or against school mask mandates. But they argue that school districts that decide to require masks need to have a clearer idea of the goal they are trying to reach.
While it might seem reasonable to require masks until COVID-19 vaccines are approved for Americans younger than 12, Allen and Jenkins say, what will happen if the vaccination rate in that group proves to be disappointingly low? "If it's conceivable—and even likely—that in March most children will still be unvaccinated, does this mean masks should come off then anyway?" they wonder. "Or would masks be recommended indefinitely?"
That disheartening prospect is hardly unrealistic given the views of many local officials, the CDC's low tolerance for risk, and the Biden administration's suggestion that the agency's advice is legally binding. "Any organization setting a mask mandate at this point in the pandemic in the United States must pair that mandate with an offramp plan," Allen and Jenkins say. "Sleepwalking into indefinite masking is not in anyone's interests and can increase distrust after an already very difficult year."