Guest columnists Adrian Staub: It’s time to end local school mask mandates

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Published: 2/17/2022 2:08:23 PM
Modified: 2/17/2022 2:08:13 PM

Of all the COVID-19 mitigation measures, the ones directly impacting children have been, from the beginning, the most wrenching and controversial.

Here in the Pioneer Valley, many children missed at least a year of in-person schooling. Since their return to in-person schooling, children have been going to school in masks. For most of this school year they have worn masks both inside and outside of school buildings.

Now Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, joining the governors of nearby states such as Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey, has lifted the state-level mask requirement for students in grades K-12, effective Feb. 28. Baker stated, “Given the extremely low risk for young people, the widespread availability and the proven effectiveness of vaccines and the distribution of accurate test protocols and tests, it is time to give our kids a sense of normalcy and lift the mask mandate on a statewide basis for schools.”

We applaud Baker’s decision. The issue of masking of children in public schools now becomes a local matter, to be decided by individual school districts. We are parents of children in public schools in Amherst, Hadley and Northampton, and we are writing to strongly urge our local school districts to abandon mandatory mask policies for children in school, and to do so immediately.

Children’s risk of serious illness from COVID-19, whether they are vaccinated or not, is so low that suitable comparisons are hard to come by; for example, the risk of death to children is much higher from ordinary activities such as regularly riding in a car, or rarely-considered hazards such as unintentional drowning.

This has been true since the beginning of the pandemic, despite media reporting that has made many parents very afraid for their children’s health, and this atmosphere of unwarranted anxiety surrounding children will have consequences that we may understand only in retrospect.

Still, an argument could be made, for much of the pandemic, that masking children was important for protection of the broader public health. The question most relevant to this argument is not whether masks are effective in general, but specifically whether mandatory masking in schools is effective at reducing COVID-19 levels in the community.

In fact, weighing educational and developmental concerns against public health concerns, the key question is: how large an effect does mandatory masking in schools produce? There are no credible scientific data indicating that masking of children in schools has limited the spread of COVID-19. No randomized controlled trials of mandatory school masking have been carried out.

Comparison of U.S. states with different mask policies, and comparison of the U.S. with European countries, which have mostly allowed children, of varying ages, to remain unmasked, does not provide any indication that mandatory masking of children has reduced the overall impact of COVID-19. This does not mean that masking in schools is completely ineffective in preventing community spread, but it does indicate that any effect must be quite small.

The narrative that masking of children is critical for the overall public health has nevertheless been difficult to shake, especially in light of the endorsement of this practice by the CDC. Over time, however, the situation has evolved, and Gov. Baker’s decision reflects this altered landscape. The vast majority of adults in our communities are now vaccinated, and vaccines have been widely available for some time. The risk of serious illness from COVID-19 to a vaccinated individual is dramatically lower than to an unvaccinated one; indeed, the risk of COVID-19 to most vaccinated and boosted individuals is comparable to, or less than, the risk posed by the seasonal flu.

Thus, the case for mandatory masking of children in school loses its last leg of support. And of course, removing the mask mandate will not prevent any concerned individual, child or adult, from continuing to use high-quality masks such as N95s that offer good protection to the wearer.

Three of us are psychologists with expertise in the development of visual perception and language, and we are certain that no one in our fields can say with any confidence what the long-term effects of masking in the classroom will be on children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. We can hope that the effects are mild and reversible.

We can also hope that our communities will recognize that even if at one point in the pandemic it was possible to make a reasonable argument for the masking of children in school, that is no longer the case. Now is the time to make our children’s lives as normal as possible. They need to giggle, to chat, to yell, to play, to show their smiling faces to their teachers and each other.

As Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, and a Newton parent, said in a recent New York Times article, “If not now, when?”

The authors are professors at UMass Amherst, three in Psychological and Brain Sciences (Rosie Cowell, David Huber, and Adrian Staub) and one in Physics (Carlo Dallapiccola).
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