Roughly two-thirds of large school districts currently enforce mask mandates in the United States. However, the debate over whether masks benefit school-aged children has led many experts to call for a "post-masking consensus" that balances children's needs with pandemic safety.
According to CDC guidance, schools should enforce "universal indoor masking by all students (ages 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K–12 schools, regardless of vaccination status."
Currently, around 50% of the 53 million children in the United States are affected by mask requirements. Sixteen U.S. states and the District of Columbia follow CDC guidance, requiring masks for all students, regardless of vaccination status. However, other states allow local school districts to independently outline and enforce mask mandates as they see fit.
However, some other countries, including the U.K., Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, follow the World Health Organization's (WHO) guidance, which does not recommend masking children ages 5 and under. According to WHO, masks are not "in the overall interest of the child," and many children are not able to wear masks properly.
Even for children between the ages of 6 and 11, WHO does not recommend constant mask-wearing, because of the "potential impact of wearing a mask on learning and psychosocial development."
The debate over U.S. mask mandates
According to The Atlantic, the three CDC studies used to determine whether masking children reduces the spread of Covid-19 had various shortcomings, because they either failed to account for vaccination rates among comparison groups or were conducted before vaccines were available.
In addition, school mask mandates typically do not specify the type of mask required, and many individuals opt for cloth face coverings. However, experts have discovered that cloth masks do not adequately contain the spread of the omicron variant, NPR reports.
In fact, CDC earlier this month updated its guidance on masks, saying that respirators, like N95 masks, provide more protection than surgical masks, which provide better protection than cloth masks. And according to several health professors published in the Washington Post, CDC's update offers "a pathway to compromise in the place where masking policies are most hotly debated: schools."
Finding the balance between children's needs and pandemic safety
As the omicron wave begins to peak in certain areas of the country, some pediatricians, neuroscientists, special education teachers, and parents have revisited the discussion on the potential negative impacts of prolonged mask mandates.
As a result, a "post-masking consensus" could be in the near future, NPR reports.
Although experts acknowledge that masks are essential to reducing the spread of the coronavirus, many have argued children often do not wear masks "correctly." And over the course of the pandemic, many teachers and parents have found that proper mask-wearing among children is difficult and constantly needs to be enforced—especially with young children and those who have special needs.
Before the omicron surge, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), wrote a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, requesting an end to long-term masking requirements. In the letter, Weingarten said classroom teachers had reported "that the constant use of masks impedes the learning process" and that parents "have expressed dismay about their child's overall well-being after wearing a mask continually for well over a year and a half."
According to AFT spokesperson Andrew Crook, the national teachers' union continues to support a deviation from school mask mandates. "You can't do it right now because of omicron, but yes, with a metric and guidance you can have an off-ramp," he said.
On Tuesday, a group of physicians and scientists announced a national campaign to "restore normalcy" in children's lives by lifting Covid-19 restrictions, including school mask mandates, as soon as the omicron surge has passed.
"Kids don't need to be masked. Full stop. They have minuscule risk of serious illness or death from Covid," said Jeanne Noble, who directs Covid-19 response for the ED at the University of California, San Francisco, and is part of the coalition.
Separately, Danny Benjamin at the ABC Science Collaborative said that mask mandates can be safely relaxed after the omicron surge if vaccination rates reach 100% for adults and at least 70% for students. "Any family that wants to protect their child should simply vaccinate their child, and at that point the risk of Covid is substantially less than the risk of flu," he said. (Kamenetz, NPR, 1/28; Doron et al., Washington Post, 1/25; Smelkinson et al., The Atlantic, 1/26)