Has masking in schools exceeded its best before date?

Children and teenagers bearing the brunt of health-threatening policies whose risks are outweighing their benefits

From a political and legal standpoint, the battle over whether mask wearing should be enforced in schools is still raging. Add to this that from a scientific standpoint, the issue of whether masks really do help curb the spread of the coronavirus in schools or in fact, anywhere, has gained enormous ground.

Close to home, students at Laval Senior Academy, weary of the tiresome mandate to wear masks throughout the school day, spontaneously undertook a semi-official protest over the mask restrictions imposed by the government and the school board. Numbering 200, these students became part of a scenario reflecting not an isolated occurrence but a trend rapidly developing across the world whereby students, in the thousands if not millions, are speaking up, demanding that their needs be respected. They are fed up, to say the least, with the violation of their rights.

Public-school students have to, by law, check out their constitutional/human rights, and whether schools can punish them for speaking out depends on where, when, and how they decide to express themselves. Caution.

The assertion that forced-masking all children ages 2 and up has any impact on school safety vis-a-vis COVID-19 is not data-driven and is not reflective of a scientific consensus. Several studies over the past year have claimed without proof that widespread masking can significantly curb transmission among students.

The question, then, becomes what to do in the face of the pandemic, regarding masks? In public schools, especially, the powers that be, the school board, must convert its current policies and strategies, to more normalizing applications of common sense through extensive implementation of such measures as fresh-air, air purifiers, and yes some social distancing, but all of it in the wisdom of doing away with masks which are simply not working.

But masking was intended to be a short-term intervention and we haven’t talked enough about the drawbacks of mandating them for children/youth long-term. If we accept that we don’t want masks to be required in our schools forever, we have to decide when is the right time to remove them. And that’s a conversation that we’re not really having, are we?

The debate about masks in schools can quickly turn vicious because it pits legitimate interests against one another. Many people who are immunocompromised, or live with those who are, understandably fear that getting rid of mandates will make them more vulnerable. But keeping kids in masks month after month also inflicts harm, even if it’s not always easy to measure, but there are significant signs that apart from questionable protection against both contracting and passing on the virus, the damage to emotional stability, physical well-being, social interaction, and psychological/ mental health – the masks are conclusively and negatively consequential.

It would be naïve to not acknowledge that there are downsides of masks. Although some of that data is harder to come by because those outcomes are not as discrete as Covid or not-Covid. But according to teachers and parents of younger children especially, there are significant issues related to language acquisition, pronunciation, concentration, and proper breathing.

As well, very clear social and emotional side effects for older kids, although not always sufficiently covered by mainstream media, are being pointed out as a threat to the general well-being of these adolescents. In classrooms, teachers must spend a lot of time overseeing proper mask-wearing, a difficult task to fulfill in addition to keeping good order and motivating students to learn. Establishing and sustaining an atmosphere conducive to optimum learning requires constant reinforcement by teachers. That’s especially true for young children and those with special needs.

How much longer can kids bear the brunt of all-day masking and punitive mask culture that create disruptions to learning, to literacy and to speech? Worried parents and fed-up-students are legitimately asking what the benefits are, at this stage, for policies like masking and whether they outweigh the harm.

The objective of ending COVID was once laudable, but at this point it’s driven by a mixture of naivete, hubris, arrogance, and entitlement. We can all be furious and devastated by the death and illness this virus is still causing, but we can’t misread people’s desire for normal as indicating callous disregard for human life.

What does the science say about all this? Despite the widespread all-day masking of children in school, the short-term and long-term consequences of this practice are not well-understood, in part because no one has successfully collected large-scale systematic data and few researchers, for mysterious reasons, have tried. Perhaps because mental and social-emotional outcomes are hard to observe and measure, and can take years to manifest. Initial data, however, are not reassuring. Recent prospective studies in Greece and Italy found, not surprisingly, evidence that masking is a barrier to speech recognition, hearing, and communication.

Imposing on millions of children an intervention that provides little discernible benefit, on the grounds that we have not yet gathered solid evidence of its negative effects, violates the most basic doctrine of medicine – to do no harm. The foundation of medical and public-health interventions should be that they work, not that we have insufficient evidence to say whether they are harmful. Continued mandatory masking of children in schools, especially now that most school children are eligible for vaccination, fails this test. Or does it? That is the question.

Renata Isopo