The CDC’s Insistence on ‘Universal Masking’ in Schools Looks Less Scientific Every Day

A recent NPR report quotes a Maryland mother who complains that you risk being tarred as “a psychotic, anti-vax right-winger” if you dare to question whether children should be forced to wear face masks in day care and K‒12 schools. The attitude comes from the belief that the rejection of mask requirements amounts to rejecting science.

Truth is, it’s closer to the contrary. The school mask mandates supporters claim they have reduced COVID-19-related transmission. They then rush to find evidence that supports their claims. This process is very similar to science.

NPR says “mask proponents…point to the many studies associating mask mandates with lower COVID-19 rates in schools.” However, these studies are mostly fiction.

One year ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending universal masking in schools. The CDC advised universal masking in schools a year ago, but there wasn’t any solid evidence to support their advice.

Many of the studies cited above did not compare mask-mandated schools to those that didn’t. The exception to this rule was the Georgia Elementary School study published in May. It found that while masking teachers led to a statistically significant drop in COVID-19-related transmissions, masking students did not.

In a second study published in September last year, it was found that children from counties with no school mask requirement experienced higher increases in their COVID-19 rates when they started school. This contrasted to those who had school masks requirements. However, the study didn’t consider vaccination rates and other COVID-19 safety measures. These are both potentially significant confounding variables. The researchers stated that this was an ecological study and therefore, it is impossible to infer causality.

A second study was published that same day that found COVID-19 epidemics more prevalent in schools without masks. Again, that study did not control for vaccination rates or other mitigation measures, and critics pointed out various other weaknesses.

Jonathan Ketcham from Arizona State Public Health explained to science writer David Zweig that “you can’t learn any about the effects school mask mandates on health” using this study. Noah Haber, a Stanford postdoctoral fellow who had co-authored a systematic review of research on COVID-19 mitigation measures, described the study as “so unreliable that it probably should not have been entered into the public discourse.”

Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director, repeatedly cited Arizona’s study to show that her agency was sound. Her evasive response was revealing. A Fox News appearanceIn December she stated that “study after research” had “demonstrated the effectiveness of our layers prevention strategies (including masks in schools) in keeping our schools safe.

Studies have shown that schools operating under mask mandates are “safe” NotIt is clear that mask mandates will be necessary in order to accomplish that goal. Data from Florida, Tennessee North DakotaHowever, Texas and Spain (the U.K.) suggest otherwise.

Laboratory studies provide compelling evidence that masks—especially N95 respirators—can reduce virus transmission, assuming they are used properly. A randomized trial in Bangladesh found that surgical masks reduced COVID-19 cases by 11 percent, but cloth masks—the kind most commonly used in schools—did not have a statistically significant effect.

Uncertainty about the real-world impact of masking is compounded when mandates apply to children as young as 2, as the CDC recommends—a stance that is extreme by international standards. The theoretical benefits, however unsubstantiated, of school mask mandates must be balanced against the daily discomfort and interference in communication, learning, social interaction, as well as the disruption to learning.

The vanishingly small COVID-19 mortality rate for children (about 0.002%) should be taken into consideration. There are vaccines and treatments available that drastically reduce the likelihood of serious symptoms. Also, there is a wide range of high-quality masks which immunocompromised people and children can use in order to avoid infection. The CDC’s insistence on universal masking is becoming less scientific.

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