Unmasking the Science Driving the Response to COVID-19 as Schools Reopen

Despite the evidence, back-to-school means going back to masks again for some kids this year, and parents and educators still don’t have evidence that mask policies keep students or teachers safe.

Rather, the experience of the past two years has taught us that teacher unions and other education interest groups, not science, are driving school responses to COVID-19.

This means that political power is a bigger concern than student health and achievement.

The primary concern for parents, teachers and policy makers today should be student learning.

Commentators and analysts on both sides of the ideological divide have called the extended school closures “disastrous,” “disastrous,” and “severe,” among other epithets.

Research has found significant learning losses among K-12 students over the past two years, with greater academic setbacks for children who were forced to stay out of the classroom for longer periods compared to those who returned earlier. in personal learning.

Some project that learning losses will be greater for those students who were already falling behind before the pandemic, a prediction that should surprise no one. Learning losses do not directly point to mandates in disguise, but these requirements are part of a series of policies that distract from student success.

However, school officials in Jefferson County, Kentucky, the state’s largest school district, along with educators in Philadelphia are among those continuing mask mandates to start the school year. Other school administrators in Fairfax County, Virginia and several school districts in California either started the year with a mask mandate or are considering one now.

As of Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified more than a third of U.S. counties as high-transmission areas, including some of the nation’s largest school districts, such as Miami.

The CDC continues to recommend school mask mandates in those counties. However, Americans have reason to doubt the scientific basis for these decisions.

Politics has become inseparable from school health policies. In March, Republicans in Congress released a report that confirmed what many had long suspected: teachers unions agreed with the White House and CDC officials to write federal guidelines that kept schools closed, despite evidence showing that children were less affected by the virus.

Agency officials recently vowed to reform the CDC, saying what all Americans have known by now: The agency “lost its focus” and had “multiple failures” over the pandemic.

For these reasons, along with the lack of reliable evidence for certain pandemic responses, the CDC has damaged its credibility in school mask mandates. School officials are far less likely today than they were last fall to adopt the agency’s recommendations.

This is a good thing for parents who will have more freedom to make their own decisions regarding the welfare of their children.

Many school officials are making the right decisions on their own. According to Burbio, a data service that aggregates school and community data, only 1.8% of the 500 largest school districts it tracks have such mandates. Last fall, nearly three-quarters of those districts required students to wear masks.

School districts across the US are ignoring the CDC’s school masking guidelines. Some of this is due to lower levels of public anxiety about COVID-19. But it also relates to the agency’s failure to establish a sound basis for its recommendations.

Consider: A widely cited study published last September in the CDC’s flagship journal, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, found that “school masking requirements [were] associated with lower daily rates of pediatric COVID-19 cases.”

But a preprint accepted for publication by The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, replicated and extended the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report’s study methodology and reached the opposite conclusion.

The authors of the Lancet study looked at schools in 565 counties included in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report study. They found that, while schools that mandated masks had lower cases of pediatric COVID-19 after three weeks, this difference disappeared after six weeks.

Extending the sample to 1,832 counties, they found no difference in pediatric case rates between schools with mask mandates and those without.

The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report declined to publish the study, although it used the same methods as the study the journal published last September.

Americans should remember that if school officials do not require masks, educators and students can still choose to wear face coverings. But public officials lack the research evidence to require everyone to wear masks.

However, educators have plenty of research to prioritize student success. So far, this has been one of the saddest casualties of the pandemic – but one we can still remedy if we put children before politics.

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