Weingarten: Maybe the CDC should give us an off-ramp for school masking

Has the American Federation of Teachers thrown in the towel — er, masks? Not exactly, although Randi Weingarten argues today that she and the teachers unions have wanted a CDC “off ramp” all along on mask mandates for children based on science. A couple of clips from this conversation on Morning Joe have made the rounds on Twitter, but Weingarten’s argument is a bit more nuanced than advertised.

Not a lot more nuanced, though. Willie Geist immediately responds to Weingarten that we already have a lot of “science” on COVID-19, children, and masks, and none of it supports mask mandates in the classroom:

“I think we have to be talking about the off-ramp for masks,” Weingarten said during an appearance on MSNBC. “No one wants masks in schools,” she added some moments later. “Not teachers, not students.”

Weingarten added that she was waiting for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue new guidance. She wrote to the agency, and to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in November, asking them to “start a transparent process and work with educators and parents on the metrics and standards for easing indoor mask requirements without sacrificing safety.”

Weingarten’s letter has received no response from the Biden administration. … The CDC did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did the National Education Association, another powerful teachers’ union. Its head, Becky Pringle, has generally taken a cautious approach to schools’ reopening.

The problem with this argument is that there’s no science for imposing masking on children in the first place. This isn’t a CDC issue; it’s a political issue that AFT, the NEA, and Weingarten herself have driven in an attempt to keep teachers out of classrooms altogether. And that’s not for the benefit of students, as Weingarten concedes later, but for adults — adults who had priority access to vaccines during the initial rationing, and who can easily get vaccinated and boosted now. On top of that, the adults can wear masks in classrooms if they so desire.

Johns Hopkins internist Dr. Lucy McBride makes the lack of scientific support for classroom mask mandates perfectly clear. “Here’s the plain truth,” McBride tells the Morning Joe panel, “there’s no convincing evidence in the real world that masking children in schools makes a significant difference in transmission in schools.” In fact, studies out of the UK showed as early as 2020 that schools did not increase community transmission, and that children themselves were not good vectors for COVID-19.

As David Leonhardt notes at the New York Times today, the arguments for masking children in schools are faith-based rather than scientific, and also ignore the real costs imposed on children with forced masking:

Some experts still favor masks in schools, saying they likely have an effect, even if few studies have yet shown it. A lot of other evidence suggests masking matters. Until the Omicron wave ends and both hospitalizations and deaths fall much further, masks should stay on, these experts say.

Other experts believe mandated school masking is almost worthless. “It doesn’t work,” Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist, told me. Among the reasons: Medical masks are designed for adults, not children, Osterholm notes. Even masks designed for children slip off their faces. Children take off their masks to eat. Add in Omicron’s intense contagiousness, and the benefits of mandates may be tiny.

It’s also relevant that teachers and students who want to continue wearing masks can do so. One-way masking, with medical masks, provides protection, experts note.

Of course, the costs of mandates may also be small for many children, especially older ones. For others, though, the costs seem larger. NPR’s Anya Kamenetz has cataloged them: Students can’t always understand teachers; young children, unable to see faces in classrooms, may not be developing emotional skills; and children of all ages are having a harder time making connections.

“They’re not developing empathy,” Stephanie Avanessian, a Los Angeles mother, told NPR. “It’s taken six months for my fifth grader to make friends because it’s so hard to tell what people are doing.”

Even the argument that masking matters to which Leonhardt links is entirely focused on adults. It’s also based on levels of mitigation, not absolute protection, and requires diligence in maintaining mask position and proper handling. For children whose risks are “infinitesimal,” as Geist puts it, and who don’t generally transmit the virus well anyway, and who would have difficulty with mask discipline, and with transmission entirely disconnected from vaccinations anyway … where’s the benefit to anyone? What benefit do children receive from this that would balance out the burdens and damage extended masking creates?

That’s what makes Weingarten’s supposed support for an “off ramp” so disingenuous. We shouldn’t have implemented classroom mask mandates in the first place. The science we have shows how unnecessary it is, and it has no connection to community vaccination rates. In fact, vaccinations don’t prevent transmission anyway, as we have seen with both Delta and especially Omicron.  Weingarten has been on the wrong side of this issue all along, and the disruption to education will have ripple effects on children for years to come — all for no purpose at all. On top of that, Weingarten suggests a guarantee of “no transmission” in schools, which is an impossible standard with an endemic disease. Weingarten may as well demand zero transmission of the flu as a condition for unmasking too, which at least does vector through schools and children … as well as everywhere else, too. Just like COVID-19.

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