Fact Check: NPR Claims Scientific Evidence in Favor of School Masking Is 'Conclusive.' It's Not.

Posted: Sep 13, 2021 10:25 AM
Fact Check: NPR Claims Scientific Evidence in Favor of School Masking Is 'Conclusive.' It's Not.

Source: AP Photo/Denis Poroy

It's time, once again, to return to the subject of school mask mandates, which we've explored on several occasions. In the United States, the elite consensus is that requiring masks in classrooms is what The Science demands, and dissenters are anti-science and anti-child. That tribal conclusion would likely come as a surprise in the United Kingdom and across much of Europe, where data and experience have led to dramatically different policies on the subject. In a previous post, I quoted a New York Magazine deep dive into the subject, a portion of which bears repeating: 

Many of America’s peer nations around the world — including the U.K., Ireland, all of Scandinavia, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy — have exempted kids, with varying age cutoffs, from wearing masks in classrooms. Conspicuously, there’s no evidence of more outbreaks in schools in those countries relative to schools in the U.S., where the solid majority of kids wore masks for an entire academic year and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. These countries, along with the World Health Organization, whose child-masking guidance differs substantially from the CDC’s recommendations, have explicitly recognized that the decision to mask students carries with it potential academic and social harms for children and may lack a clear benefit. To date, the highly transmissible Delta variant has not led them to change this calculus. 

In that same piece, I wrote: "Not requiring students to mask up, or at least offering exceptions and opt-outs for parents, seems like an entirely reasonable public policy call for officials to make. If data were to emerge that masks are significantly effective in stopping the virus from spreading in schools, that would be one thing. We should always be open to data." A new report from NPR purports to demonstrate that such data exists and is "conclusive": 

Notice the title of the piece is framed as a snarky fact check of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose parental opt-out policy is generally in line with Europe's approach (in fact, it's arguably more pro-school masking in some ways). But as writer A.G. Hamilton notes, the supposed evidence doesn't support the confident substance and tone of the headline. "This is selective misinformation," he writes. "CDC's own study determined that 'lower incidence in schools that required mask use among students was not statistically significant compared with schools where mask use was optional.' Europe has come to same conclusion." The difference in COVID spread between masks-required and masks-optional schools was statistically insignificant, according to a CDC study. More context

A CDC study of Georgia schools published in May...found that COVID-19 infection was 37% less common in schools that required teachers and other staff members to wear masks, similar to the difference associated with “improved ventilation.” But the same study found that requiring students to wear masks was not associated with a statistically significant reduction in case rates. In Florida, the CDC found that school districts without mask mandates had higher infection rates. But the researchers noted that smaller districts were less likely to require masks, and they also “had a higher proportion of students attending in-person instruction,” which likewise was “positively correlated with the student case rate.” The CDC says “most studies that have shown success in limiting transmission in schools” involved “prevention strategies” that included requiring “staff only or staff and students” to wear masks. The implication, of course, is that some schools had “success in limiting transmission” even without mask mandates or with mandates that did not apply to students. In Florida, where many districts did not require masks, the CDC found that less than 1% of students were infected in schools during the first semester after they reopened in August 2020. During the same period, school-related COVID-19 outbreaks were likewise a minor problem in England, where students were not required to wear masks.

The NPR article asserts a powerful conclusion that simply is not justified by the actual available evidence: 

Hamilton points out that this disconnect sows further distrust of media: 

Let's also recall that many of the people screaming loudest about the essential nature of student masking are the same people who wrongly fought to keep schools closed last year, harming millions of children (I'll also note that it has now been twice documented that teachers unions directly influenced CDC guidance, inserting special interest agenda items into the supposed science). One union boss was recently quoted claiming that learning loss is a myth, along with other nonsense. She's dead wrong, of course, as a growing mountain of data shows: 

"How [are] we feeling about closures of 12-18 months?" Mary Katharine Ham asks, forebodingly. Meanwhile, as we approach the coming debate over child vaccination, here's former FDA chief Dr. Scott Gottlieb advising parents that the issue may not involve one-size-fits-all guidance: 

Several prominent physicians reacted

I'll repeat yet again that one of the few silver linings of this nightmare pandemic is that children are effectively vaccinated against COVID-19: 

Children basically do not die from COVID, which is a blessing that should impact public policy involving kids and COVID. And though the number of COVID-related hospitalizations among juveniles has clearly increased during Delta, it's not clear if the hospitalization rate also increased. And those very few kids who do end up in the hospital with or from COVID overwhelmingly survive.

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