Lead editorial in the Journal Opinion, Dec. 29, 2021
As the Haverhill community becomes embroiled in a school mask dispute, we need to keep our emotions in check and not let the broader cultural and political divide over Covid dominate the discussion.
Despite recommendations by the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, universal masking in schools is not necessarily an effective deterrent against Covid transmission among students.
A careful reader will note there is a lot of qualification in the previous paragraph. That is exactly the point.
While there is some evidence to suggest that masking in schools is an effective mitigation measure, it is not backed by the most rigorous research. Unfortunately, we really do not know if the benefits of masks in schools outweigh the costs. They may. They may not.
In August, the online education reporting outlet Chalkbeat published a story exploring the use of masks in schools:
“In short, existing studies focusing on schools — including those cited on both sides of the debate — are strikingly limited. Little if any research has definitively shown what effect masks have on COVID spread in schools.”
Also in August, New York magazine took on the same subject addressing an “ambitious and groundbreaking” CDC study of Covid transmission in 90,000 elementary school students in Georgia. It found masking then-unvaccinated teachers and proper air ventilation reduced Covid transmission. But, “distancing, hybrid models, classroom barriers, HEPA filters, and, most notably, requiring student masking were each found to not have a statistically significant benefit.”
Both Chalkbeat and New York noted that masking children has it downsides, particularly for younger children and challenged learners.
So why do our nation’s public health authorities insist on masking in schools? It’s a good question. Again, it’s one Chalkbeat sought to answer: “At the same time, there is a broader body of evidence collected in other settings that suggests that masks help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases like COVID-19. That appears to be what’s driving health authorities to recommend masking in the classroom, alongside a general desire to minimize the risk to children and communities when cases are rising.”
There is logic to that approach. Whatever care we take for ourselves as adults, we should double, triple, and more for our children. But children are not adults. Schools are not a workplace, a concert hall, or a restaurant for miniature adults.
While masking may appear to be a low-cost strategy among adults, it has serious trade-offs for children in schools, particularly for those who are still learning to interpret facial expressions and social skills.
Further, children generally have fewer adverse health outcomes, less severe health outcomes, and lower levels of transmission during this pandemic.
But this editorial’s point is not about whether we favor or disfavor masks in the classroom. It’s about guarding against certitude particularly when that belief rigidly adheres to a political viewpoint.
Turning to Twitter to post a measured and reasonable critique of the Haverhill school board decision, a Dartmouth College professor wrote, “I can no longer count the tributaries that feed into this river of murder.”
Good grief. A Greek chorus could not conjure so much useless melodrama.
Prior to Dec. 13, Haverhill did not have a universal mask policy. It only had a targeted masking policy. Some students wore masks some of the time.
It was a messy policy with dubious results. There have been 85 cases at the three Haverhill schools this year. That strikes us as a lot. The policy was not effective.
Writing for New York, David Zweig concluded that adult vaccination and ventilation remain the best options for stopping Covid transmission in schools. We agree.
The Journal-Opinion, published in Bradford, is the weekly community newspaper for Vermont and New Hamsphire’s upper Connecticut River Valley. Subscriptions available for both online and print editions.