There's Little Rationale for Masking School Kids, but Teachers Unions Are Demanding It

The National Education Association strong-armed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Last May, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) decided that many Americans could relax their vigilant mask wearing, the leaders of the nation's top teachers union were furious.

The National Education Association (NEA) swiftly intervened to ensure that the CDC would still advise masking in schools, regardless of vaccination status. According to documents obtained by Fox News, the NEA threatened to release a letter excoriating the CDC's guidance. This prompted government health officials to clarify that masks should still be worn in all schools.

The NEA's meddling is unsurprising: Earlier this year, teachers unions mounted a similar effort to persuade the Biden White House to slow down on school reopening. This is the role the teachers unions have claimed for themselves throughout the pandemic: create obstacles to prevent children's lives from returning to normal for as long as possible. It's a role that American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten clearly relishes. Her Twitter feed is filled with demands that students be masked, distanced, and quarantined as often as necessary.

It's worth noting that masks are of dubious importance for school children. There's scant evidence that putting kids in masks makes them any safer from the ill effects of COVID-19. New York magazine's David Zweig reviewed 17 different studies cited by the CDC and found little reason to believe that masks were making a difference in schools. (Better ventilation seemed to be the much more important mitigation strategy.) Young people, after all, are at extremely low risk of suffering a negative health outcome associated with COVID-19. The disease has claimed the lives of fewer than 400 people under the age of 18, many of them with underlying health problems. For most kids, COVID-19 does not pose a greater statistical risk than the flu—masks just don't matter.

Before the widespread availability of vaccines, masks might have been important to prevent students from unwittingly spreading the disease to vulnerable adults. But it's now trivially easy for school staff members to get the vaccine and reduce their risk of hospitalization and death to almost nothing. The students are overwhelmingly safe—because they are young people—and the teachers and staff are also safe—because they can take the vaccine. Schools can implement additional strategies for good measure, like opening the windows and having lunch outside, weather permitting. Masks are much more trouble, especially if kids are expected to wear them until some distant point in the future—possibly forever—when COVID-19 is gone completely.

"The negatives [of masks] are not zero, especially for young children," Lloyd Fisher, the president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told Zweig. "It is important for children to see facial expressions of their peers and the adults around them in order to learn social cues and understand how to read emotions."

Weingarten and company act as if it would be insane to reopen a school without a mask mandate, and have lashed out at Republican officials like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for prohibiting such requirements. But the U.S. is somewhat alone in its zeal for placing masks on school children. As The New York Times recently conceded, most students and teachers in the U.K. do not wear masks at all—and the situation is much the same in Ireland, France, Italy, and Switzerland.

Teachers unions and their allies must have missed this memo. Indeed, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan implicitly suggested that DeSantis had blood on his hands, following the deaths of more than a dozen Florida educators from COVID-19.

These deaths are tragic. But it is simply not true that a lack of mask mandates is killing Florida teachers. What's killing Florida teachers—and practically everyone else who suffers a negative health outcome due to COVID-19—is a lack of vaccination. Of the 15 who passed away, at least 13 were unvaccinated (information for the other two was not available, though it's likely they were unvaccinated as well). It's reasonable to criticize DeSantis for his efforts to prevent public institutions from requiring employees to get vaccinated, but the dearth of mask mandates has largely taken center stage.

The Food and Drug Administration should move much faster to approve vaccines for young kids so that families have the option of additional, over-the-top protection. But there's no compelling reason to make students experience further hardship while waiting for that day to come. Why are teachers unions behaving otherwise?