Dam breaking? NYT runs "end mandatory school masking" op-ed

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File

Has the dam broken on school masking — or on a red wave fueled in part by angry parents at a public-health mandate that never made any sense in the first place? The New York Times published cri de coeur from Michelle Goldberg that calls for a definable off-ramp for mandatory school masking. Needless to say, mask advocates on the Left will not cheer on the NYT columnist, even though Goldberg isn’t calling for an immediate halt to the mandates:

The debate about masks in schools can quickly turn vicious because it pits legitimate interests against one another. Many people who are immunocompromised, or live with those who are, understandably fear that getting rid of mandates 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. But from speaking with pediatricians, from speaking with learning specialists, and also from speaking with parents of younger children especially, there are significant issues related to language acquisition, pronunciation, things like that. 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.

Why should we expect to see mask requirements return for children? Masks mitigate against viral threats to varying extents, but children have very low risk for acquiring COVID-19 or in generating substantial community transmission of it. In the beginning of the pandemic, this might have made sense, but we have tons of data on school operations and community transmission, and it all points in the direction of very low risk.

Don’t take my word for it — take the CDC’s word for it:

Although outbreaks in schools can occur, multiple studies have shown that transmission within school settings is typically lower than – or at least similar to – levels of community transmission, when prevention strategies are in place in schools. Findings from these studies include:

  • National surveillance data from the United Kingdom (UK) showed an association between regional COVID-19 incidence and incidence in schools. For every five additional cases per 100,000 population in regional incidence, the risk of a school outbreak increased by 72%.46
  • Few cases in Australian schools were reported when community transmission levels were low, and cases in schools increased when community transmission increased.2
  • In Michigan and Washington state, delivery of in-person instruction was not associated with increased spread of SARS-CoV-2 in schools when community transmission was low, but cases in schools did increase at moderate-to-high levels of community transmission.52  When community transmission was low, there was no association between in-person learning and community spread.52
  • A combined cross-sectional and cohort study in Italy between September 2020 and February 2021 found that reopening schools for in-person learning did not contribute to the second wave of SARS-CoV-2 infections.47

What about the risk to adults in these settings? Even before the vaccines were widely available, studies showed that student-to-adult transmission was significantly lower than staff-to-staff transmission. Adults might be at risk in those environments, maybe, but from each other, not the students. And adults can get vaccinated and/or wear masks to mitigate that threat for themselves. Teachers and staff in most states got priority access to vaccinations when supply was low for that very purpose.

With vaccines widely available and the latest variant producing community transmission in every other venue, continued masking of children in schools is ludicrous in terms of risk balancing. Given the masks that have been used for kids — usually cloth masks — it’s even more absurd, especially since kids are not going to tolerate N95 or KN-95 masking for hours at a stretch. That’s the point that Goldberg tries to gently make in her incremental fashion, but good luck in getting that to penetrate:

Otherwise, I fear that, at least in very liberal areas, a combination of extreme risk aversion and inertia means that school masking will persist indefinitely. 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.

This more or less exemplifies America’s abandonment of rational risk balancing in favor of a “zero COVID” expectation. The Omicron variant is not risk-free — people still get seriously ill with it and hospitals are still crowded — but the risks are much more manageable now, thanks to vaccines and therapeutics.  The pandemic has become endemic, and we have to learn to recognize the risks not just from the virus but also from the efforts we use to mitigate it. Masking children doesn’t actually mitigate a rational risk, and it produces very bad outcomes for children for little if any benefit to themselves or others.

Josh Kraushaar sees the dam breaking on mask mandates:

I’m not as convinced that the dam is breaking; Twitchy’s covering the hysteria over Goldberg’s milquetoast suggestion pretty well. It will only break fully when politicians realize that they have to choose between the teachers’ unions and angry parents who wonder how much damage their children and their economics have to suffer before rational risk balancing returns. And that might not happen unless and until those parents start passing laws that allow for full school choice which gives them the option of choosing schools and teachers that will actually show up to work.

That’s likely going to be the only “off ramp” we’ll get from this insane insistence on zero risk assumption from adults and burden-shifting to children instead.