Elissa Perkins, the director of infectious disease management in the emergency department of the Boston Medical Center, told me she spent most of 2020 “imploring everybody I could in every forum that I could to mask.” In the beginning, she said, this was to flatten the curve, and later to protect the vulnerable. But masking, she said, “was intended to be a short-term intervention,” and she believes we haven’t talked enough about the drawbacks of mandating them for kids long-term.
“If we accept that we don’t want masks to be required in our schools forever, we have to decide when is the right time to remove them,” she said. “And that’s a conversation that we’re not really having.”
At least, people in deep blue areas weren’t having it until recently. But as the Omicron wave begins to ebb, that conversation — sometimes tentatively and sometimes acrimoniously — has begun. Perkins and the Washington Post co-authored an essay this week calling for schools not to use masking. The Atlantic published an article titled, “The Case Against Masks at School.”
“Coming off the Omicron surge, I think there’s going to be a tipping point with more and more people questioning does this need to continue in schools,” said Erin Bromage, an associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. Bromage was a part of the Rhode Island governor’s team that reopened schools and then helped schools in southern Massachusetts to reopen. Bromage believes in the importance Covid mitigationsHowever, his views on school-masking have changed in recent months. There comes a point, he said, “at which the reduction in risk that comes from the mask is balanced or begins to be outweighed by the detrimental side of things that come with masking.”
Because legitimate interests are being fought, the debate about masks in schools could quickly turn into a vicious one. Many people who have been diagnosed with immunocompromised, or who live with them, fear that mandating will make them more vulnerable. But keeping kids in masks month after month also inflicts harm, even if it’s not always easy to measure.
“I think it would be naïve to not acknowledge that there are downsides of masks,” said Perkins. “I know some of that data is harder to come by because those outcomes are not as discrete as Covid or not-Covid. However, speaking with pediatricians, learning specialists, and parents of younger children, I have found significant issues in language acquisition, pronunciation, and other areas. And there are very clear social and emotional side effects in the older kids.”
That’s why I believe that mandatory school masking should end when coronavirus rates return to pre-Omicron levels. I fully accept that, in future surges, masks might have to go back on, but that’s all the more reason to get them off as soon as possible, to give students some reprieve.
Otherwise, I fear that school-masking will continue, at least for the most liberal areas. The chief executive of the Prince George’s County public schools in Maryland recently downplayed the idea of a future without masks, saying: “The only off-ramp I want is the one where Covid no longer exists. I don’t think that that off-ramp will exist.” I hope this attitude isn’t widespread, but if it is, it will be incumbent for progressive parents desperate for an off-ramp to push back.
There’s some question about how well masks in school really work; many studies are confounded, since communities with school mask mandates tend to adopt other Covid mitigation measures as well. Much of The Atlantic’s “The Case Against Masks at School” is devoted to reviewing studies either conducted or cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it concludes that the “overall takeaway from these studies — that schools with mask mandates have lower Covid-19 transmission rates than schools without mask mandates — is not justified by the data that have been gathered.”
The fact that experts can poke holes in some studies of masking does not mean that masks don’t make a difference. “Unfortunately it’s being painted as black or white, it’s like either they work or they don’t, but with everything it’s nuance and there’s a gradient,” said Bromage. Cloth masks, he said, might reduce the chance of Omicron transmission by “10 percent going out and 10 percent coming in.” That’s not nothing, but it does suggest that the mask mandates we have now aren’t as protective as some might think.
Higher-quality masks are obviously more effective. Los Angeles has begun requiring schools to use upgraded masks. Before other cities follow suit, we need to question whether we really want to make school-mask policies more strict at a time when vaccines for children are readily available and masks that protect the wearer, even if they are not, are widely available.
As Harvard’s Joseph G. Allen has written, “For anyone who fears moving away from universal masking, the great news is that they can continue to wear an N95 mask — along with being vaccinated and boosted — and live a low-risk life regardless of what others around them are doing.” There was a time when N95s were hard to get, but now the Biden administration has started providing them free. And younger kids who can’t wear adult-size N95s can wear KN95s and KF94s.
Omicron’s timing has been especially cruel for those of us who waited eagerly for vaccine approval for children over 5. For almost two years, many of us told our children that once they were vaccinated, they could reclaim many of the ordinary joys they’d had to sacrifice. Omicron put off this reclamation. It shouldn’t be postponed a moment longer than necessary.
Source: NY Times