Should masks be required when kids return to school?

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week released new guidance for schools that are planning for another academic year affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The top priority for schools, the agency said, is bringing students back into the classroom and ending distance learning wherever possible.

The endorsement of in-person learning was celebrated by many parents, educators and scientists who have tracked the difficulties that remote learning has imposed on the nation’s children and families since March of last year. The CDC outlined a variety of largely uncontroversial steps schools should take to prevent the virus from spreading, including vaccinations, physical distancing, testing and improved ventilation.

The element of the agency’s new guidance that is sure to spark the most debate is its recommendation that masks be worn by all students, teachers and staff who have not been vaccinated. Since vaccines are available only to children 12 years and older, the guidance essentially asks all of the country’s elementary school students to wear masks until they’re eligible to be vaccinated.

The CDC issued recommendations, not a mandate. The final decisions on school policies will be made at the state and local levels. It’s already clear that large swaths of the country will not follow the agency’s mask guidance. According to one tally, about a third of U.S. schools are in states that currently mandate masks in all schools. Roughly half are in states that have left the choice up to local lawmakers. Also, a handful of Republican governors have expressly banned schools from requiring masks.

Why there’s debate

Some opposition to school mask requirements echoes the intense, at times violent, resistance that made masks a heated subject in the culture war over the course of the pandemic. But there are also more nuanced, evidence-based arguments against asking kids to cover their faces in the classroom.

In the eyes of many experts, it’s unreasonable to force children to endure the difficulties of wearing masks — which they say include stifled breathing and reduced social connection — when we have more than a year and a half of evidence that kids face little risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19. While more than 600,000 Americans have died of the disease, only a tiny fraction of those deaths were children under age 18. Some also argue that high rates of vaccination among teachers and seniors mean the risk of kids passing the virus to vulnerable adults is greatly reduced.

Advocates for mask mandates in schools argue that although the danger to children and the likelihood of virus spread are reduced, those risks still exist. Masks, they add, are a minor inconvenience relative to the major disruption that could occur if an on-campus outbreak forces schools to shut down again. There are also concerns that the highly contagious Delta variant could change the realities around COVID risks to kids if it’s allowed to run rampant through the nation’s schools.

What’s next

Virtually all major U.S. school districts plan to return to in-person instruction for the fall semester, which begins for most students next month. The first vaccine for children under 12 could be approved as soon as this fall.

Perspectives

Supporters

Masks are a small inconvenience that can help keep schools open

“Masks are easy to use, inexpensive and effective, and when used in combination with other measures such as distancing and testing, they allow children to attend school and camps safely until vaccination is available to them.” — Jeanette Beaudry, Baltimore Sun

In the absence of vaccine mandates, masks are necessary

“It is beyond time for the Biden administration to support voluntary efforts at vaccine credentialing that will make such determination possible for administrators. Until that happens, I would like the CDC to say that if proof of vaccination isn’t required, everyone should keep wearing masks indoors.” — Leana S. Wen, Washington Post

Mask rules should be dependent on the local situation

“Even if a community sees low numbers of Covid-19 cases, there’s another number they should look at to feel in the clear: vaccination rates. Because if a community or school isn’t sufficiently vaccinated, it remains at risk of the coronavirus coming back — all it takes is one infected person interacting with others to potentially launch an epidemic.” — German Lopez, Vox

It’s worth doing whatever is needed to prevent even a small number of child deaths

“Thankfully, children are at lower risk for complications from COVID-19, but low risk is not no risk. Pediatric COVID-19 still matters. Nearly 4 million children have tested positive, thousands have been hospitalized, and hundreds have died — all during a period when multi-level mitigation processes were in place. ... Children are not meant to die.” — Kelly Fradin and Dr. Hina Talib, Chicago Tribune

Schools can’t be asked to enforce different rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated kids

“Teachers will have the heavy task of trying to catch their students up on the learning they lost during a year and a half of remote lessons. The last thing they need is to become mask monitors, overseeing which students need their masks and which don’t. It’s more effective, and simpler to enforce, when everyone has to wear a mask.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

The Delta variant means kids may be more likely to pass the virus to others

“If a young child gets Covid-19, that means there is an increased risk for his or her parents, especially if they are unvaccinated. The ripple effects could be manifold.” — Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, CNN

Opponents

COVID-19 has never posed a significant threat to children

“Guidelines that mandate the involuntary masking of children is based on an assessment of risk that is not justified by any rational calculation. It is paranoia, and public health officials are cultivating it.” — Noah Rothman, MSNBC

Vaccines have changed the risks associated with community transmission

“While more cases are likely and some amount of hospitalization and death, as well, vaccines have eliminated the overwhelming share of American mortality risk, with the disease now circulating almost exclusively among people who can endure it much, much better — kids especially.” — David Wallace-Wells, New York

Masking decisions should be left to individual families

“Masks for kids may be recommended, but not forced. If your young child is immunocompromised or has a chronic medical condition that puts them at greater risk of a COVID complication, or simply wants to wear a mask, then they should. Public health decisions need to be flexible and consistent with the latest science.” — Dr. Marc Siegel, USA Today

Masks do more harm than good for kids

“Masks may make it harder to breathe, particularly while exercising, and may discourage physical activity at a time when obesity rates in children are climbing. ... Masking encumbers socialization as well as communication and speech development by blocking the visualization of mouth movements, obscuring facial expressions and muffling voices. Masking also heightens anxiety of children with autism and other sensory processing challenges. ... Why would we unnecessarily inflict that on our children?” — Margery Smelkinson, Washington Post

The fight over masks in schools is about politics, not science

“We’re now 16 months into the pandemic and children remain victims of the Covid political theater that has characterized the national debate about masks ever since.” — Ashley E. McGuire, Wall Street Journal

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