Fragile evidence supports keeping school mask mandates in place
School districts in Virginia and New York are bracing for a fight to keep mask mandates in place in the face of political and legal challenges despite the weakening scientific case for keeping children in masks in the classroom.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order making masks optional in schools has sparked a firestorm in some left-leaning districts, where school officials are still trying to enforce their mask mandates as they file lawsuits against the order.
In New York, a judge on Monday overturned Governor Kathy Hochul’s mask mandate because, according to the state Supreme Court, only the legislature has the power to enact such sweeping health rules.
Although the ruling temporarily left schools and other organizations in limbo about whether they could continue to enforce mask mandates, an appeals court ruled late Tuesday to keep the mandate in effect while the legal challenges continue, dealing a blow to opponents of mask mandates.
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A wide range of studies have shown that masks can reduce the transmission of COVID-19 when worn correctly and are especially helpful in crowded indoor settings, which classrooms can sometimes be.
But the mainstream wisdom surrounding masking in schools has begun to change in recent months, with relatively weak supporting evidence for the effectiveness of masks in school settings and growing concerns about the unintended consequences of face coverings. children tipping the balance of the debate.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidelines on January 14 to clarify that N95 masks, or respirators, are the most effective types of face coverings and that respirators provide more protection than masks. fabric or surgical.
The agency change came after some prominent public health experts began to question the usefulness of continuing to wear cloth masks despite evidence that such face coverings do little to protect the wearer.
Dr. Leana Wen, former president of Planned Parenthood and a public health expert who has always advocated for more mitigation efforts, drew attention in December when she recognized that cloth masks are “little more than facial decorations”.
The CDC’s update in mid-January was the first time the agency conceded that certain types of masks provide less protection against the virus than other types.
Three eminent scientists argued in a Washington Post editorial on Tuesday that the CDC’s latest guidelines should pave the way for optional masking in schools.
“High-quality respirators and other masks are very effective in protecting their wearers, regardless of what the people around them are doing,” the three doctors wrote. “As a result, schools can finally make masks optional safely for students and staff.”
Tackling an aspect of the debate that many public health experts have spent months avoiding, the trio of doctors also argued that masking in the classroom has cost students academically, developmentally and socially.
Scientists have warned that masks can hinder the development of communication and social skills in ways that disproportionately harm younger learners.
“Since speech transmission is impaired by mask-wearing, there is a risk of misunderstanding when face masks are widely used in schools. Speaking through a face mask can attenuate higher frequencies and therefore impair verbal communication,” Manfred Spitzer, a German neuroscientist, wrote in a September 2020 article in the Trends in Neuroscience and Education newspaper.
“Furthermore, visual cues are well known to aid in speech recognition, which may be an additional cause of face mask-induced impaired speech perception and communication,” Spitzer wrote. .
The Biden administration has largely sidestepped questions about whether masks do more harm than good in schools.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky repeatedly cited a study that has been heavily criticized for vastly exaggerating the benefits of school mask policies.
The study, an examination of COVID-19 outbreaks in schools with and without a mask mandate in two Arizona counties, found that schools without a mask mandate were 3.5 times more likely to experience an outbreak than schools that needed masks.
A review of the underlying data by the Atlantic in December found that the study did not consider fall school opening dates when reporting their COVID-19 cases as outbreaks. This meant that some of the mask-mandated schools in the study could have been open for up to twice as long as the mask-mandated schools studied, giving mask-free schools twice as long to develop an outbreak. .
The study also did not take into account vaccination rates in the schools examined, meaning its authors could not explain whether vaccines or masks kept cases lower in some schools.
Still, Walensky pointed to the study as clear evidence masks prevented COVID-19 from spreading in the classroom.
Another CDC study touted as evidence to support masking in schools also did not consider teachers’ vaccination status or student testing rates in the 520 counties it examined.
The study concluded that in counties with school mask requirements, less than half of every 100,000 children tested positive for COVID-19 than in counties that did not require masks at school.
However, the study appeared to exclude variables that could have explained the difference in the number of child COVID-19 cases between counties, such as the number of tests performed in each county and whether community transmission rates were higher. in counties without mask schools than counties with mandatory mask schools, or vice versa.
The author of the study did not respond to a request from the Washington Examiner for a list of counties used in the study and which had school mask mandates, as well as whether testing data was available for those counties.
A third study that made headlines for appearing to support school mask policies involved mandated and non-mandated schools in Michigan when school resumed in the fall of 2021.
“K-12 schools without a mask mandate in Michigan have seen 62% more coronavirus spread,” reads one Detroit Free Press headline from October, which cited data from the state health department and the University of Michigan.
The underlying data that inspired the headline, however, included a note explaining that school districts requiring masks may have implemented other mitigation standards that contributed to their lower COVID-19 rates.
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The findings that made headlines in the fall were based on a limited time window, examining transmission in schools in August and September only.
By December, the disparity in COVID-19 cases between mask-free and mask-mandated school districts in Michigan had all but disappeared.
The University of Michigan and the state health department admitted that “transmission in other settings” may have, by November, “erased” differences in COVID-19 rates between districts without mask and the districts requiring a mask.