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The left should prepare to lose the school-mask wars

The people in contemporary America who most pride themselves on their alleged commitment to science and public health are also the most superstitious and immune to evidence. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the debate over masking kids at school — an ongoing, flagrant example of collective irrationality.

The supporters of mask mandates are fired by a righteous certainty that if a child comes to school unmasked, his or her school and community are at risk of a devastating outbreak of COVID; that parents who don’t want to mask their kids are selfish and uncaring boobs who need to turn off Fox News; that public officials who block mask mandates, or carve out exemptions for objecting parents, have blood on their hands. 

The mask proponents either have no idea that the United States is an international outlier in its school mask mandates (neither the European health authority nor the World Health Organization go as far as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and that there’s next to no evidence for public-health benefits. Or they simply don’t care because they are too attached to the theater of masked-up kids, in some jurisdictions even while they are outside for recess. 

The late economist Herb Stein famously said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Well, masking can’t go on forever, but that’s not stopping its advocates, who will very likely, when all is said and done, look nearly as foolish as the fierce proponents of school closures earlier in the pandemic. 

School masks sign
Many parents want to make the decision whether their children go to school masked instead of being forced.
AFP via Getty Images

Although there are still some holdouts who believe so-called remote learning was a necessary and costless mitigation strategy, it is now widely acknowledged to have had grievous educational costs with no public-health rationale. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine wrote a retrospective on the schools debate the other day headlined “School Closures Were a Catastrophic Error. Progressives Still Haven’t Reckoned With It.” 

The mask mandates will fare almost as poorly, and the political and intellectual backlash is building, with huge fights over mandates in Virginia and New York state.  

A notable piece in The Atlantic by three public-health experts eviscerated the case for school mask mandates. It related how a randomized trial in Denmark found no significant effects from masks on reducing transmission, and a study in Bangladesh found that surgical masks had some effect on reducing transmission.

Student in masks
Los Angeles Unified School District students were required to wear masks and take COVID-19 tests in order to return to school.
AFP via Getty Images

But, importantly, the studies weren’t of children. 

A Brown University study of schools in New York, Massachusetts and Florida didn’t find any correlation between student cases and mask mandates. The same is true of a study in Science. Analysis of the data from schools around the country points the same way.

The mask mandates aren’t as harmful as the school closures, which were a debacle, but they aren’t without cost either, especially, as The Atlantic authors note, for kids “with cognitive delays, speech and hearing issues and autism.”

“Schools did not become hot spots,” they write, “when they reopened, nor when they reduced physical distancing, nor when they eliminated deep-cleaning protocols. These layers were peeled away because the evidence supporting them was weak, and they all had substantial downsides for children’s education and health.”

Mask mandates should join the litany of cast-aside school mitigation measures. If we are worried about the welfare of teachers, there’s nothing to stop them from getting vaccinated and boosted, and the vast majority are indeed vaccinated. Meanwhile kids are at very low risk, and parents should be free to send their children to school masked if that makes them more comfortable. 

But many on the left have a deep attachment to masks that isn’t based on evidence or on a calibration of costs and benefits but an a priori commitment to them as a totem of public safety and private virtue. That this feeling is subrational makes it all the stronger. The science is beside the point, although eventually — after pro-mandate Democrats sustain more political damage — it will prevail.  

Twitter: @RichLowry

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