Guest columnist Joe Pater Seth Cable, Summer Cable, Michael Stein and Susan Voss: School mask mandates still make good sense in Hampshire County

  • In this May 21, 2021 file photo, a person holds a mask while walking outside in Philadelphia. AP

A recent opinion column published in the Gazette claims 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.” (“It’s time to end local school mask mandates,” Feb. 18)

We disagree, since the following provides what we take to be a clearly reasonable basis for deciding to continue the school mask mandates until the levels of community transmission subside to a much lower level. We offer this as a statement of views that we believe are widespread, but are usually not made as vocally as those of the opponents of mask mandates and other public health measures.

1. It is reasonable to minimize spread in our community by using school masking. Our children interact with other members of the community, some of whom are relatively vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 infection. By slowing spread in our schools, we are also slowing spread in our communities.

The authors of the opinion column claim that “[t]here are no credible scientific data indicating that masking of children in schools has limited the spread of COVID-19.” They do not say why they do not consider the data presented by the CDC or other data to be credible. It is possible that they consider only data from randomized controlled trials to be credible, since they say in the next sentence that “[n]o randomized controlled trials of mandatory school masking have been carried out.”

The CDC and other experts clearly consider sources of evidence other than RCTs to be useful, and it is not difficult to imagine why no RCTs have been run on school masking. For example, Institutional Review Boards may well balk at approving a study with a control group of unmasked students in a community with high transmission.

2. It is reasonable to characterize the current local level of community transmission as high, and the risk to community health of that transmission as high as well. According to Massachusetts Department of Health data, there were 680 new cases in Hampshire County the week ending Feb. 17, which translates to a per capita rate that is over four times the CDC’s bar for “high transmission,” and over eight times the bar for indoor mask wearing.

Many of those cases are likely from an outbreak at UMass Amherst, which reported 456 cases in the week ending Feb. 15. The future impact to the broader community of that outbreak is unknown. The DPH reports 37 COVID-19 deaths in the last 28 days in Hampshire County, which can reasonably be taken to indicate a high community health risk.

3. It is reasonable to minimize COVID-19 infections in our children. While most children recover quickly from COVID-19 and have mild symptoms, some wind up in hospital, and some die. That the proportion of deaths is lower than in adults, or that the number is lower than child deaths from some other cause, does not make it any less desirable to avoid those deaths.

In addition, the long-term effects of these infections is unknown. There are clearly long-term effects of COVID-19 infections in general. We can only hope that childhood infections with omicron, especially in vaccinated children, will have fewer long-term effects.

4. Mandates maximize the protection of each individual. If everyone in a room wears a mask, the amount of airborne virus is minimized, maximizing the protection for everyone. It is a less effective protection for an individual if others are maskless. This is especially true if that individual does not have the mask perfectly fitted, or occasionally takes it off to eat or drink, circumstances that seem common in a school.

Wearing a mask is not just about protecting oneself, it is also for the protection of the community, including its most vulnerable members. For example, universal masking allows children who are immune compromised or otherwise at high risk for severe disease and children who have family members who are immune compromised to attend school when it would otherwise be unsafe to do so.

5. It is reasonable to decide that real or potential negative effects of masking are outweighed by their positive benefits in minimizing COVID-19 infections. There seems to be no good evidence of negative effects of masking on child development. It is quite possible that speakers of non-mainstream varieties of English (e.g. second language speakers) may be more impacted than others by mask wearing.

Real and potential negative effects should be taken into account in any decision about a mask mandate, and attempts should be made to address them when masking is in effect. But it may well be that the benefits of masks outweigh any risks.

This column was signed by over 150 Hampshire County residents. Joe Pater, of Northampton, is a professor of linguistics at UMass; Summer Cable lives in Northampton; Seth Cable, of Northampton, is a UMass faculty member; Susan Voss, of Northampton, is a professor of engineering at Smith College; and Michael Stein of Northampton. Visit here to view those who signed the column.
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