Tablet: The insistence on masking kids is 'cultlike behavior'

AP Photo/Denis Poroy

The battle over masks in schools is just one part of the larger battle over having kids in schools at all. Yesterday, Tablet published a story by an associate professor of epidemiology at UCSF arguing that the enforcement of masks on young children is “cultlike behavior.”

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, every child age 5 and up is eligible to receive a COVID vaccine in the United States. Oddly, this development has been accompanied by increased pressure on kids to wear masks in school. Some private schools have gone beyond cloth-masking and mandated N95 (or equivalent) masks for children as young as 4. The Berkeley Unified School District in California recently began transitioning students to N95-level masking. This isn’t a matter of protecting children, their teachers, or their grandparents; it’s delusional and dangerous cultlike behavior…

The United States is uniquely aggressive in masking young kids. Contrary to scientific evidence, the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics advise that children as young as 2 should wear masks. Europe has always been more relaxed on this issue, and the World Health Organization advises against masks for kids under 6 and only selectively for kids under 11.

I wrote about why the CDC has been uniquely aggressive on masks for young kids. That stance is at least partly based on a study released last year which claimed schools without mask requirements were 3.5 times more likely to see COVID outbreaks than schools with such mandates. The CDC was quick to spread word of that study in public, but there are good reasons to think the results are not reliable. Several experts who looked at it said the study was poorly designed and one scientist called it “so unreliable that it probably should not have been entered into the public discourse.”

That’s not the only study suggesting masking children is not effective. Vinay Prasad, the author of the piece, points to evidence out of Spain that suggests as much.

Data from Spain on masking kids is sobering. The figure below shows the R value—a measure of how fast the virus spreads—by age. Spain mandated masks at a specific age cutoff. If masks have a visible effect, we should see a step down in the graph at the age kids start to wear them (i.e., the spread should drop at the age masking begins). But as you can see, there is only a slow, deliberate, upward trend with no steps down. Based on the evidence only, it would be impossible to guess which age groups are wearing masks and which are not.

Finally, even if masking did work, would it still make sense to mask kids given that everyone now admits that eventually Omicron (or some other highly transmissible variant) is going to become endemic. In other words, we’re all going to catch it eventually, like the common cold.

The fact that omicron is widely spread by vaccinated people, coupled with its rapid rate of spread, means that sooner rather than later we will all be infected—a conclusion shared earlier this month by Anthony Fauci. But if infection is inevitable for everyone, then it no longer makes sense to wear a mask. Even the most effective mask can’t avert infection; it can only delay it while causing inconvenience, discomfort, and difficulty speaking, all of which are detrimental to the educational and emotional well-being of schoolchildren.

Prasad clearly believes the focus on masks has become a kind of “virtue-signaling and public health performance.” But in this case it’s not just that. I think he’s more accurate when he writes that the “anxieties of adults” have been shifted onto children. In particular the anxieties of public school teachers, many of whom seem eager to return to remote learning, despite the fact that we know remote learning does not work for a significant number of kids.

And that brings us back around to politics. Prasad doesn’t say this but I think it’s very doubtful the US would be such a standout worldwide on the masking of young children if not for the stranglehold teacher’s unions have on Democrats and the Biden administration. As we’ve all seen over the past year, how well kids are doing under the policies teacher’s unions push is a secondary concern for them.

Correction: My headline initially read, “Tablet: The insistence on making kids is ‘cultlike behavior'” Making rather than masking was a typo obviously, probably my best typo ever. If the insistence on making kids is cultlike behavior we have bigger problems.