Is now the right time to be rolling back school mask mandates?

·Senior Editor
·8 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Over the past few days, officials in a number of Democrat-led states have announced plans to lift their statewide school mask mandates in the coming weeks. Collectively, the moves represent a significant shift in the long-running debate over school mask policies.

The changes come amid a steady drop in daily COVID-19 cases from the peak of the Omicron surge in mid-January. But not all blue states are following suit, at least when it comes to schools. The governors of California, New York and Illinois each announced that mask mandates for most indoor settings would be lifted but that school mandates would continue for the time being.

The new policies also put blue state lawmakers at odds with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which continues to recommend universal masking indoors in all public places. Right now 13 states and Washington D.C. require masks in all schools. That number will drop below 10 once recently announced policy changes go into effect. Most parts of the country still allow local officials or individual schools to impose their own mask requirements. A number of Republican governors have attempted to bar local mandates in their states, but many of those bans have ended up entangled in legal challenges.

Why there’s debate

For most of the pandemic, the debate over school mask mandates was split into two distinct camps: those who feel masks are an important tool for curbing the spread of the coronavirus and those who argue they’re an ineffective burden imposed on children. Lately, a third group has emerged: people who were once supportive of school masking but now believe the harms outweigh the benefits.

Members of the latter group say the combination of declining case numbers, the availability of vaccines and mounting evidence that masks may be causing real damage to children means it’s no longer rational to continue forcing kids to cover their faces every day. Without mandates, they argue, individual students and their parents will be free to make their own decisions about the merits of masking, rather than having that decision made for them by lawmakers.

Those who support keeping mask mandates in place argue that even though COVID case numbers have declined, they are still far too high and child vaccination rates are far too low to justify any so-called return to normal. Others make the case that the most important thing for children’s development and mental health is keeping them in the classroom, a task that will be all the more difficult if mask rules are lifted.

One thing that makes the debate so confounding is the lack of definitive data on how well masks prevent the virus from spreading in schools and how much harm, if any, they cause to the children wearing them. Some studies suggest that schools that require masks do have fewer outbreaks, but it’s hard to attribute that difference solely to masks because communities that support mask mandates are also more likely to back other mitigation measures. At the same time, there’s clear evidence of a mental health crisis among school-age children, but it may be impossible to isolate the role that masks play with so many pandemic-related disruptions going on at the same time.

What’s next

Barring an unexpected spike in infections in the coming weeks, it appears likely that some of the remaining holdout states will also start to reconsider their school mask mandates in the near future. California officials, for example, are working to develop “a longer-term action plan” that may include an update to mask requirements in schools.

Perspectives

Mask mandates are still needed

There’s no clear evidence that masks cause any real harm to kids

“Many calling for an end to mask mandates point to vague ‘downsides’ and ‘harms’ from masking children. … What these articles cite, if anything, is studies showing that masks sometimes muffle speech and make it slightly harder to judge emotion from facial expressions alone. The articles then infer that, given these findings, there must be some kind of damage to children’s development. The problem is, so far there is no evidence to support these claims.” — Melody Schreiber, New Republic

Masks would be unnecessary if schools were willing to require COVID vaccinations

“First we need to implement the common-sense technique we’ve long used to prevent viruses from spreading wildly: Require vaccination and boosters in schools, both for staff and students. Then consider dropping the masks.” — Editorial, NJ.com

No one likes wearing masks, but they’re still necessary

“I understand that people are done with wearing masks. I want to be done with them too. But being done with masks means being done with COVID. And as our death toll clearly shows, COVID and all of its variants are not done with us.” — Gina Caneva, Chicago Sun-Times

Dropping mask mandates might reverse progress that’s being made against the virus

“We’re just starting to get it back under control. I don’t think we should be abandoning the interventions we have that are still helpful.” — Seema Lakdawala, respiratory virus researcher, to New York Times

The most vulnerable children face even greater risk if masks come off

“At all times, youngsters with disabilities require us to step up our game so that they, like their able-bodied siblings and peers, get the best chance of maximizing their potential. It’s heart-breaking to see any child left out. … The law must protect these kids while they are in school.” — Paul Babcock, Daily Progress

Masks help keep schools open, which is the thing kids need most

“The best way to keep schools open during the pandemic is to make them as safe as possible from the predations of a highly transmissible virus, and one way to do that is to ensure that students, faculty and staff wear masks.” — Editorial, Washington Post

Adults are far more upset about masking than kids are

“While COVID is having certainly a huge impact on children, the masks are not. They seem to be bothering adults more.” — Gigi Gronvall, public health expert, to USA Today

Mask mandates should go

It’s dangerous to assume masks aren’t harmful just because their impact hasn’t been measured yet

“Imposing on millions of children an intervention that provides little discernible benefit, on the grounds that we have not yet gathered solid evidence of its negative effects, violates the most basic tenet of medicine: First, do no harm. The foundation of medical and public-health interventions should be that they work, not that we have insufficient evidence to say whether they are harmful.” — Margery Smelkinson, Leslie Bienen and Jeanne Noble, Atlantic

Anyone who wants to will still be free to wear a mask if it makes them feel safer

“The end of a statewide mask mandate doesn’t mean that a particular school will no longer require masks. And even if the school is no longer requiring masks, that doesn’t mean the end of masks and that everyone should walk around maskless. To me, ending mask mandates means that masking is no longer a government-imposed requirement. It’s still the choice of parents and families whether their child should be masked.” — Dr. Leana Wen, health policy researcher, to CNN

Children face an extremely low risk from the virus at this stage of the pandemic

“With omicron case numbers plummeting, it’s reasonable to recalculate the balance between the protection masks provide and the difficulties they impose. In doing so, it pays to keep in mind school-age children’s relatively low risk of hospitalization and death from Covid — especially if they’re vaccinated, as almost all of them should be. What’s more, there’s evidence that kids do not readily spread the coronavirus to their elders at school.” — Editorial, Bloomberg

Masks were valuable in the past but do more harm than good now

“Masks have served as an important line of defense against COVID-19. But the facts on the ground clearly warrant a shift in policy. The Omicron variant is in retreat. … And after months and months of muffled conversation, kids deserve a chance to take off the mask and interact with their teachers and peers in a healthier way.” — Editorial, Boston Globe

There is no scientific evidence to back the continued, irrational commitment to school masking

“The people in contemporary America who most pride themselves on their alleged commitment to science and public health are also the most superstitious and immune to evidence. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the debate over masking kids at school — an ongoing, flagrant example of collective irrationality.” — Rich Lowry, New York Post

Masks have become a political statement detached from the reality of the virus

“Fearmongers are determined to place restrictions on children. It doesn’t matter if the science says otherwise. Mitigation efforts have become a new religion, and children are caught in the crossfire.” — Kimberly Ross, Washington Examiner

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