Stop Masking Young Children

Students wearing face masks head back to school on the first day of school amid the coronavirus pandemic in Houston, Texas, August 23, 2021. (Go Nakamura/Reuters)

Ignoring all available evidence, school districts and the CDC continue to insist that children as young as two should be masked. Enough is enough.

When I found out that our local school district would begin the school year with staff and students in masks — again — I asked what measurement they were using to determine when this mandate could be relaxed.

When I was told that there was no such metric, I responded to the man on the other end of the phone that at that moment, I was standing in a country, Ireland, where children under 13 never wore masks in schools — health authorities there, who had otherwise been quite strict and overly authoritarian about COVID in my view, recommended against masking young children at all. In fact, I told him, Ireland seemed to be doing the exact opposite of the U.S. where masks were concerned: Irish adults continued to mask in most indoor spaces, but children never did. He sighed, and noted that our own public-health authorities hadn’t been so consistent on the mask question themselves. He was just following orders.

Moments later, I got an email from a second-grade teacher saying that the only thing missing from her classroom was the smiles of her incoming class of students. She didn’t realize how bitterly ironic this would sound, given the district’s mask mandate.

Let’s be absolutely clear about this: No data could convince schools to unmask young students. We know as much because no data inform or support the current CDC recommendation that children over two years old be masked in schools.

To the contrary, the CDC’s own large-scale study of masks and ventilation improvements in Georgia elementary schools showed that the lower incidence of COVID infection there “was not statistically significant compared with schools where mask use was optional.” The big differences in spread were found to come from improving school ventilation. Another study of Florida implied that school districts that only mandated masking by teachers still found success in limiting transmission of SARS-CoV-2.

This isn’t surprising in that overall, transmission rates in schools have tended to be just one-third as high as transmission rates in their surrounding communities. This is almost surely due to the fact, known to us for over a year now, that young children — even unvaccinated young children — are not efficient transmitters of COVID-19.

Outside of Israel and France, no major COVID outbreaks have been attributed to schoolchildren. Much of Europe is not masking children in schools. While some countries, e.g. Austria or Scotland, will begin the school year with masks, they are expected to start phasing out the requirement for young children within weeks. Norway explicitly advises against masking school-aged children. And Denmark is specifically prioritizing “normalcy” as a part of public health.

And yet, here in the United States, we are not just putting masks on toddlers, we are still putting up plexiglass dividers in some classrooms as a way to establish distancing of students — even though the only evidence we have about such dividers’ effectiveness suggests that they may increase transmission of the virus. Our CDC is still sticking to student-masking “guidance” that is out of line with the World Health Organization’s advice, which holds that “Children aged 5 years and under should not be required to wear masks.” Occasionally, our children have even been asked to wear masks while playing sports, including, in some cases, outdoor sports. We are now entering a third school year marred by these rules, most of which have no solid evidentiary basis. This may feel like the blink of an eye for some adults, but for many children, especially school-aged children, it has become a childhood-defining experience.

One begins to suspect that if there is actually a metric that will cause school districts to stop requiring masks and the CDC to stop recommending them for small children, it is a political metric rather than a medical one: Mask mandates will only end when enough parents stop tolerating them.

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