When The Atlantic urges to unmuzzle the kids… that says something. https://t.co/YsWhopSx0e
— Domestic Terrorist (@domestic415) January 28, 2022
To justify mask requirements in school at this point, health officials should be able to muster solid evidence from randomized trials of masking in children. To date, however, only two randomized trials have measured the impact of masks on COVID transmission.
The first was conducted in Denmark in the spring of 2020 and found no significant effect of masks on reducing COVID-19 transmission. The second is a much-covered study conducted in Bangladesh that reported that surgical masks (but not cloth) were modestly effective at reducing rates of symptomatic infection. However, neither of these studies included children, let alone vaccinated children.
Other studies—not randomized trials—have looked at the effects of masks in schools, and their results do not support pervasive, endless masking at school. A study from Brown University, analyzing 2020–21 data from schools in New York, Massachusetts, and Florida, found no correlation between student cases and mask mandates, but did see decreased cases associated with teacher vaccination.
A study published in Science looking at individual mitigation measures in schools last winter found that, although teacher masking reduced COVID-19 positivity, student masking did not have a significant effect.
Even though the first half of this school year was dominated by the highly transmissible Delta variant, the picture in more recent studies looks similar. In Tennessee, two neighboring counties with similar vaccination rates, Davidson and Williamson, have virtually overlapping case-rate trends in their school-age populations, despite one having a mask mandate and one having a mask opt-out rate of about 23 percent.
One would expect a quarter of the students opting out of masking to affect transmission rates if masks played any significant role in controlling COVID-19 spread, but that was not the case.
Another recent analysis of data from Cass County, North Dakota, comparing school districts with and without mask mandates, concluded that mask-optional districts had lower prevalence of COVID-19 cases among students this fall. Analyses of COVID-19 cases in Alachua County, Florida, also suggest no differences in mask-required versus mask-optional schools.
Similarly, the U.K. recently reported finding no statistically significant difference in absences traced to COVID-19 between secondary schools with mask mandates and those without mandates.
Recent prospective studies from Greece and Italy found evidence that masking is a barrier to speech recognition, hearing, and communication, and that masks impede children’s ability to decode facial expressions, dampening children’s perceived trustworthiness of faces.
Research has also suggested that hearing-impaired children have difficulty discerning individual sounds; opaque masks, of course, prevent lip-reading. Some teachers, parents, and speech pathologists have reported that masks can make learning difficult for some of America’s most vulnerable children, including those with cognitive delays, speech and hearing issues, and autism.
Masks may also hinder language and speech development—especially important for students who do not speak English at home. Masks may impede emotion recognition, even in adults, but particularly in children.