Editor’s note: This op-ed was first published by The Orange County Register on July 13, 2021.
California health officials have mandated masks for all students when schools reopen on the grounds that “treating all kids the same will support a calm and supportive school environment.”
There is a much better way to achieve the same goal: discontinue mask wearing for all students, vaccinated or not.
The benefits of masks in preventing serious illness or death from COVID-19 among children are infinitesimally small. At the same time they are disruptive to learning and communicating in classrooms. They may be partially effective in shielding adults from COVID, but since when is it ethical to burden children for the benefit of adults?
COVID-19 is less of a threat to children than accidents or the common flu. The survival rate among American children with confirmed cases is approximately 99.99%; remarkably, recent studies find an even higher survival rate.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study estimated that mask mandates in schools are associated with a roughly 20% reduction in COVID-19 incidence though the effect estimate was statistically indistinguishable from zero. Let’s take the 20% effect at face value and do the math. Last month, about 5,000 school age children in California were diagnosed with COVID-19, which means 1,000 infections would have been prevented if all school kids wore masks. Given the survival rate among children, mask mandates might prevent one child death in the coming school year, a tiny fraction of the approximately 900 deaths of children 5 to 17 years old in 2019. If the aim is to save children’s lives, other interventions – like enhanced pool safety – would be much more effective.
At the same time, the long-term harm to kids from masking is potentially enormous. Masking is a psychological stressor for children and disrupts learning. Covering the lower half of the face of both teacher and pupil reduces the ability to communicate. In particular, children lose the experience of mimicking expressions, an essential tool of nonverbal communication. Positive emotions such as laughing and smiling become less recognizable, and negative emotions get amplified. Bonding between teachers and students takes a hit. Overall, it is likely that masking exacerbates the chances that a child will experience anxiety and depression, which are already at pandemic levels themselves.
So why are adults insisting on masking school children? The argument that it treats all children the same is misdirection. Put simply, it is about self-preservation. Children may not be particularly vulnerable, but they can spread the virus to others, including teachers, school staff, and family members, some of whom may be vulnerable.
The fear of transmission was so great last year that even masking was not enough. Schools were closed en masse, sacrificing a year and a half of childhood development to keep adults safer. Ironically, the evidence from my research and those of others suggest that the effects of school closures on COVID-19 risk were at best minimal. In Sweden, where schools were not closed, and children were not masked, teachers were at lower COVID-19 risk than the rest of the population. Closing U.S. schools was a mistake as the harm to children likely exceeded the small benefit to adults.
Today, adults have no reason to put their safety ahead of the well-being of school kids. Vaccinations are highly effective at keeping adults out of the hospital and even better at preventing death. A healthy, fully vaccinated teacher is close to impervious to threats posed by COVID-19 spread in the classroom. By now, every teacher in America has been offered the vaccine; many were in the first priority group, even above vulnerable older people. If we want to enhance safety for adults further, we can do so by other measures, such as improved ventilation, that are less intrusive than masking.
Parents who are not vaccinated have it backwards if they count on their children to not bring COVID-19 home. They need to step up and be the first line of defense for their families.
Ethically, the onus is on proponents to show that the benefits of masking kids outweigh the costs. They are proposing a fundamental, risky shift in classroom interactions and should prove with certainty that there are no other options for safely reopening schools.
The California Department of Health and Human Services has no such proof. Instead it is demanding another year of diminished education and personal growth for children so that adults can feel marginally safer, even with massively effective vaccines available.