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The Sketchy Science Behind School Mask Mandates

The CDC has pushed for a universal school mask mandate. What does the science say about this policy?

The issue of school mask mandates in schools has been under the scope of partisan infighting for many months in the United States. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued on August a statewide order prohibiting local school boards to impose mask mandates in their local schools, the Republican governor argued that mask mandates within schools are “unscientific”. Democrats have argued the contrary, with Biden promising more money to schools that have been implementing mask mandates in their premises.

With the fight over mask mandates becoming a political issue, the question remains quite simple: What does the science say about the effectiveness of using masks inside schools? And what is the rest of the world doing on this issue?

mascarillas, El American
The issue of in-school masking has become divisive in the United States (EFE)

The U.S. is a global outlier in the issue of school mask mandates

The Biden Administration has doubled down on mask-mandates in schools, with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) publishing COVID-19 prevention guidance for schools that are reopening. The guideline says, among many other things, that schools should adopt a universal indoor masking policy for all students, teachers, visitors, and staff that are older than 2 years, regardless of their vaccination status.

However, this policy is not being replicated by similar health organizations around the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that the approach towards masking inside of schools should be nuanced, with the global organization recommending that kids under 5 years should not wear masks.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, the EU’s counterpart to the CDC, also has a different approach towards indoor school masking. According to the ECDC, implementing a blanket mask mandate inside schools is a “challenging” issue and states that the use of masks for students in primary school is “not recommended” and that adults and teachers should only use them in cases when physical distancing is not possible.  

The British Department of Education also has a very different set of guidelines over the issue of masking in schools. The UK’s guidance says that face coverings “are no longer advised for pupils, staff, and visitors either in classrooms or in communal areas”. The British guideline also makes clear that “no pupil or student should be denied education on the grounds of whether they are, or are not, wearing a face-covering”.

CDC says the science is clear on school masking, critics are not so certain

America has opted for a universalist and maximalist approach on school masking, something that neither the WHO nor the Europeans have advised for, in part because the CDC has said that the scientific evidence in favor of indoor school masking is clear. Biden’s Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona quoted four articles that support the decision for school mask mandates, saying that the “evidence is clear” and that “universal masking will keep our children safe”.

Critics have not agreed with the assessment of Secretary Cardona, with school-choice advocate Corey DeAngelis highlighting that three of those studies did not compare the data with a control group (a school without mask mandates) and that one study was a computational simulation.

Many schools have imposed an indoor school masking system for all of its students, regardless of vaccination status (EFE)

DeAngelis also remembered that the authors of one of those studies had publicly contradicted the conclusions made by the Secretary, with the senior author of one of the articles saying that since their study did not include a control group it cannot provide “any information about the role masks played” in the low in-school transmission.

One of the studies Cardona quoted, conducted in North Carolina, has not been peer-reviewed yet, meaning that it has not been evaluated by fellow researchers to attest for its credibility. In fact, the official website where the article is available explicitly warns that these type of studies “should not be reported in news media as established information” nor should they “be relied on to guide clinical practice or general health behavior”.

If non-peer-reviewed articles are to be quoted by government officials as a sign of clear scientific consensus on an issue, then Secretary Cardona should also take a look at this non-peer-reviewed study that shows no correlation between mask mandates and COVID-19 cases in schools.

Medical experts divided over recent Arizona study

The CDC also published a two-page summary of a study conducted in Arizona where data collected by the researchers showed that schools without mask mandates are 3.5 times more likely to present COVID outbreaks than those who did have mask mandates. The study was conducted between July and August of this year and was released in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) of the CDC.

The studies published by the CDC in the MMWR are not peer-reviewed like those that are published in medical journals. Instead, they are submitted to a “rigorous multilevel clearance process” where the study is reviewed by many researchers from the CDC.  

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The CDC published a study in Arizona showing that schools with masking regimes had less cases than those without (EFE)

However, Danish Ph.D. on Epidemiology Tracy Høeg (the senior author of one of the articles quoted by Cardona) raised some questions over the way this study was done. Høeg said that the MMWR study did not adjust for community cases in one of both counties, where COVID cases rose during the study, which is important as 95% of cases come from the community.

American Oncologist Vinayak K. Prasad also criticized the study, pointing out that the study compared schools that were fundamentally different, that the study did not report vaccination status nor testing, and that the study did not include the raw number of students who were thought to be infected due to school spread.

The CDC has issued universal masking for schools arguing that the science is crystal clear. However, other parts of the world have taken a very different approach than the U.S. on masking and the conclusions the administration has taken from some studies have been questioned by researchers, even by the authors of the articles themselves.

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