Hospitals are experiencing an influx of young children with serious respiratory illnesses. Out of concern for their wellbeing, some health professionals are pushing to bring back mask mandates for schools. In other words, students would be required, once again, to wear masks while in school buildings.
While their motives might be admirable, their remedy is anything but admirable. That’s because wearing masks in schools at this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic would not only be useless; it would be downright harmful.
It’s important to note that most children admitted to hospital are not ill because of COVID-19. Rather, they are sick with other respiratory illnesses such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) or influenza. These illnesses are not new, and there is nothing unusual about children contracting them. In fact, they are common childhood illnesses, and many children contract them every year.
The problem is that mask mandates and public health restrictions over the last two years have dramatically reduced children’s exposure to these common viruses. As a result, young children have less immunity to RSV and influenza and some are now getting sicker than children did in the past.
Even if we assume that masks would reduce the transmission of viruses, all the mandates do is delay the inevitable. The wave of infections that is happening this fall would simply be postponed until restrictions are dropped once again—except it would be even worse next time because children would have even less immunity than they do today.
Of course, the other option is to keep mask mandates in place indefinitely. Few people seriously think this is a realistic option. The notion that students should wear masks all day in school from K-12 is not a viable strategy. Thus, unless we are prepared to keep masks in place forever, we need to acknowledge that it’s time to move away from mask mandates in schools.
As for COVID-19, the virus has clearly entered its endemic stage. No one, other than China’s Communist government, thinks that a Zero-COVID strategy will work. Virtually everyone acknowledges that COVID-19 will be with us for many years to come, just like influenza and RSV. What this means is that there is no point in wearing masks until COVID-19 goes away because the virus is obviously not going away soon. Rather, it will continue to mutate and circulate in our population.
Parents who are worried about the health of their children can take comfort in the fact that children continue to be the demographic group least likely to experience serious outcomes from COVID-19. In addition, parents have the option of vaccinating their children against COVID-19 if they wish.
Obviously, these vaccines should remain optional for both children and adults. Parents must be free to decide for themselves the medical interventions they want for their children. Vaccination is a personal medical decision that should be made by parents when they consult with their doctor.
Let’s not forget that children have suffered greatly over the past two years. Not only have they missed months of school, but much of their time back in school was marred with mask mandates and strict social distancing regulations. Finally, this school year is back to normal and the last thing students, especially young students, need is to be forced to wear masks while they are attending school.
In addition, wearing a mask interferes with normal interpersonal communication and is particularly hard on students who suffer from hearing disabilities. Since masks cover the face, it becomes almost impossible to read lips and interpret facial cues. In addition, masks make it harder to have a normal conversation since they tend to muffle voices.
In the end, we need to decide what type of society we want to have. Do we want to be a society of hypochondriacs who are obsessed with personal health to the point of making it almost impossible to contract a respiratory virus? Or do we want to be a free and open society that thrives on normal communication and interpersonal contact?
Judging by the fact that masks are becoming increasingly rare in public places, it is clear what most people have chosen. Anyone who wants to wear a mask in public places, including schools, is free to do so. But school trustees should not impose this choice on students.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard enough on our kids. Let’s not make it even harder by bringing back unnecessary mask mandates.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”