John Locke Update / Research Brief

To mask, or not to mask, that is the question

posted on in COVID-19 Series, Education, Education (PreK-12), Rights & Regulation
Featured Image
July 2021 update of Burbio's "School Mask Policy Tracker."
  • North Carolina is one of only ten states that continue to declare that “we shall every one be mask’d
  • Elected officials want mask policies to be in the hands of local communities and not the Cooper administration
  • A recent ABC Science Collaborative study of COVID-19 transmission in schools is misleading and ignores scientific research on the harms of face coverings

A widely shared graphic from burbio.com showed that only ten states, including North Carolina, continued to enforce statewide mask mandates for public schools. South Carolina and seven other states outright banned them. With the start of the 2021-22 school year just weeks away, the fate of North Carolina’s masking policy is unclear.

I anticipate that Gov. Roy Cooper and Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen will compel selected public school students and employees to wear masks for at least part of the upcoming school year. Nevertheless, another top-down mask mandate would conflict with commendable efforts by elected officials to allow local communities to dictate who must wear face coverings in public schools.

Free the Smiles

A handful of school boards have begun to push back against the possibility of a statewide mask mandate. The Harnett County Board of Education declared that face coverings are optional for children participating in the district’s summer programs. Most recently, Rowan-Salisbury and Union County school boards approved policiesto make face coverings optional for schools in their districts. The Haywood County Schools Board of Education passed two resolutions. The first affirmed the board’s opposition to a statewide mask mandate. The second supported Senate Bill 173: Free the Smiles Act.

Last month, Union County Rep. David Willis converted Senate Bill 173, formerly an occupational therapy bill, into the Free the Smiles Act. This measure would authorize the governing boards of public and private schools to establish the masking policies for schools under their jurisdiction. Boards would be required to approve their policies for the first month of school by August 1, 2021. If board members vote at any point in the school year to require face coverings for all employees and students, they must revisit the matter at least once a month.

The legislation does not necessarily usurp the governor’s power to issue executive orders that mandate the use of face coverings to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. But Senate Bill 173 would preclude the use of a statewide executive order for this purpose. Instead, Cooper would be obliged to issue an executive order for each school that includes a justification for the order specific to that school.

Sixty-three Republicans and three Democrats in the House voted in favor of the Free the Smiles Act. Forty-four Democrats voted against it. The Senate did not concur, so a committee of appointed House and Senate members will hash out details between the two chambers.

Are Masks Effective?

The political debate is converging with disputes over the science of masking.

The most recent study published by the ABC Science Collaborative at Duke University declared that “Proper masking is the most effective mitigation strategy to prevent secondary transmission in schools when COVID-19 is circulating and when vaccination is unavailable, or there is insufficient uptake.” The implication is that masks should be required for schools returning to full, in-person instruction in the fall. Undoubtedly, the Cooper administration will use the report to justify a statewide mask mandate for all public schools.

Yet the report has notable shortcomings. In “Sophistry at Duke in Defense of Masks,” Duke University researcher Tom Nicholson chided the ABC Science Collaborative for publishing a report that failed to support the claim that face coverings effectively slowed the spread of COVID-19 in North Carolina schools. Rather than subjecting the masking strategy to an appropriate empirical analysis, ABC Science Collaborative researchers opted to use a rather unscientific approach to account for the limited transmission of the virus within schools.

ABC Science Collaborative researchers analyzed data and found no relationship between social distancing and COVID-19 transmission in schools. Rather than using comparable statistical methods to assess other potential causes, they simply declared that the use of masks slowed transmission. As Nicholson pointed out, they could have addressed the lack of a non-masked control group in North Carolina students by comparing transmission rates “with school districts in other states and in Europe that didn’t mandate masks.” The ABC Science Collaborative chose not to do so.

Nicholson wrote:

All schools showed low degrees of transmission, for which the report credited the only unstudied pillar, the masking policy. Because it applied everywhere in the state, there was no control group. …

In an inversion of logic, the report concluded that the only nonvariable in the data set must be the cause of low transmission rates in North Carolina schools. It should be obvious that proving some components of a strategy as useless doesnʼt demonstrate that others are effective. Such a claim requires a control group or appropriate statistical methods.

The researchers might as well have attributed the low Covid rate in schools to wearing shoes.

Moreover, the Cooper administration and mainstream media irresponsibly disregard the potential harm associated with wearing face coverings. As my colleague Jon Sanders recently noted, they have ignored “recent research (among others, see herehere, and an RCT study here) showing specific ills affecting mask wearers including decrease in oxygen, increase in carbon dioxide, hypoxia, hypercapnia, dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide 3-7 times higher than the maximum limit (and worse for younger children), anemia, fatigue, headaches, respiratory impairment, temperature rise, and moisture under the masks (which harbors infectious bacteria).”

Even if ABC Science Collaborative researchers established the statistical likelihood that masking impeded the spread of COVID-19 in North Carolina, these potential harms should be integral to the decision-making process, media coverage, and the public debate over mandatory face coverings in public schools.

Dr. Stoops is the director of the Center for Effective Education. Before joining the Locke Foundation in 2005, he worked as the program assistant for the Child Welfare Education Programs at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. He… ...

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