John Locke Update / Research Brief

What Are School Mask Mandates Doing to Children?

posted on in COVID-19 Series, Education, Education (PreK-12), Rights & Regulation
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  • Nearly every public school district in North Carolina is forcing face masks on students
  • Researchers are sounding the alarm about the psychological, physical, social, developmental, and academic harms of masks on young schoolchildren
  • With the benefits so uncertain and the potential costs so large, we must be asking whether these mandates are really worth it

According to reports, now fewer than 10 school districts across the state are currently not forcing schoolchildren into face masks. It’s a policy stemming from sheer adult panic with purblind disregard for children, who are being inflicted with psychological, physical, social, developmental, and academic harms. For what gain? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study on May 21 finding that the difference in transmission rates in school systems that required masks among students vs. those in which mask-wearing was optional was “not statistically significant.”

Research has shown repeatedly that masks don’t work to prevent transmission of respiratory viruses, even Covid-19. No randomized control trial (RCT) offered statistically significant evidence in their favor, and most suggested they were either ineffective or even counterproductive. A new study (medRxiv preprint, Aug. 7, 2021) of mask mandates and use in U.S. states “did not observe association between mask mandates or use and reduced COVID-19 spread in US states.”

Trauma from mask mandates?

In a column in Forbes posted Aug. 18, Zak Ringelstein, a teacher, founder of Zigazoo and UClass, and the 2018 Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Maine, warned: “School Mask Mandates Mean Trauma For Millions Of Children, Especially Those From Low-Income Families.”

Ringelstein wrote:

Students in most American classrooms now must wear a covering over their face and stay distanced from their peers the entire school day. In many schools, students are forced to play by themselves during recess. Even for the youngest of school children, desks are in rows. Kids can’t see each other’s smiles or learn critically important social and verbal skills.

The phrase I hear repeated over and over again to justify masks is: “kids are resilient.”

But as an elementary school educator and Ph.D. student at Columbia University trained in trauma-informed instruction, I am concerned that this statement is overly simplistic and misleading. What we should be saying is: “masks and social distancing induce trauma and trauma at a young age is developmentally dangerous, especially for children who are experiencing trauma in other parts of their lives.”

Ringelstein warned of compounding problems as these traumatized children grow into adults. They include:

  • “According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, children without assurance of their personal security (e.g. social anxiety from masks and social distancing) are often incapable of making social connections and may have difficulty building intimate relationships in their lives.”
  • Neurological research demonstrates that kids who experience this kind of fear and trauma at a young age undergo structural and functional restructuring of their brain’s prefrontal cortex, resulting in emotional and cognitive processing problems.”
  • For children from poor backgrounds, the trauma is even worse because they “often have the compounding effect of other trauma at home or in their community,” with “nearly half of all American children” already having experienced trauma before Covid.
  • Children forced into masks and away from each other are also more likely to be sedentary and are “more likely to become both obese and depressed,” with obesity already disproportionately affecting poorer children and potentially shortening their lives.
  • “Children in masks are also likely to miss out on cricital language development, another fundamental area of growth in early years where children from low-income backgrounds already have disproportionate disadvantages.”

Ringelstein concluded with this plea:

But we must ask ourselves: do the benefits of masks and social distancing truly outweigh the long-term psychological, physical, social, and academic harm we are inflicting on a whole generation of American schoolchildren? If we care about equity and the most vulnerable members of our society, we at least can’t be afraid to ask.

This article was later pulled without explanation by Forbes sometime between Aug. 30 and 31. Now it fades out with an editor’s note reading, “This page is no longer active. We regret any inconvenience.” Perhaps they were afraid to ask.

Out of step with the research — and most of the rest of the world

Meanwhile, in an article in The Atlantic posted Sept. 2, Vinay Prasad, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California at San Francisco, warned about the dangers of child masking.

Prasad noted:

[C]hildren—who even amid the worrisome Delta-variant surge are experiencing serious outcomes from COVID-19 at far lower rates than people in older age groups are—have different needs and vulnerabilities than adults. Early childhood is a crucial period when humans develop cultural, language, and social skills, including the ability to detect emotion on other people’s faces. Social interactions with friends, parents, and caregivers are integral to fostering children’s growth and well-being.

Prasad discussed how most of the rest of the world differ from the U.S. in regards to masking schoolchildren. He wrote:

In the United States, though, current CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines call for kids age 2 and up to wear a mask in indoor school or day-care settings; the CDC specifically makes exceptions for napping and eating. (Masking very young children during sleep is inadvisable because of the risk of suffocation.) In other words, the prevailing wisdom in the U.S. calls for 2-to-4-year-olds to wear masks in day care for six or more hours while they are awake, but go unmasked while sleeping side by side in the same room. Shielding children from all coronavirus exposure is difficult for another practical reason: Little kids fidget with their masks.

Prasad even found several school districts requiring masks on kids outdoors, even though “scientists have known for some time that outdoor transmission is exceedingly rare, and many experts believe that outdoor masking is misguided.” Incidentally, Wake County schools just announced a requirement that high school athletes must wear masks outdoors while on sidelines and this very morning reported they are seriously considering forcing “face coverings [to] be worn at recess and during athletics and extracurricular activities.”

Noting that research “suggests that masking kids in school does not provide a major benefit and might provide none at all,” Prasad was also not afraid to ask:

In mid-March 2020, few could argue against erring on the side of caution. But nearly 18 months later, we owe it to children and their parents to answer the question properly: Do the benefits of masking kids in school outweigh the downsides? The honest answer in 2021 remains that we don’t know for sure.

As of now, at least, Prasad’s column is still posted. But The Atlantic has been getting a stream of reports against Prasad “for misinformation” as well as social-media invective ever since.

The question they fear is the one we must be asking, urgently

Apparently, the only thing adults in public school systems across America fear as much as Covid is people asking if the benefits of forcing masks on kids’ faces all day long is worth all the harm it’s doing to their psychological, physical, social, developmental, and academic well-being.

Maybe it’s not the question that scares them. Maybe it’s the answer — and what it would reveal about their true priorities.

Jon Sanders is an economist studying state regulations, that spreading kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. Serving as Senior Fellow of Regulatory Studies and also Research Editor at the John Locke Foundation, Jon gets in the weeds of all… ...

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