Should kids have to wear masks at school? And, if so, for how long?
Eighteen states require kids—in some cases as young as age 2—to mask all day in class, and nine states have banned school districts from requiring masks.
In July, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order banning mask mandates in Florida school districts, writing that "a right to normal education is imperative to the growth and development of our children and adolescents." DeSantis was influenced by parents like Tina Descovich, a former member of Florida's Brevard County School Board and co-founder of Moms for Liberty, which has 160 chapters and more than 70,000 members nationwide.
"We support parental choice in masking, always," Descovich tells Reason. "We believe a parent has the ultimate authority…the fundamental right to guide and direct the upbringing, the medical care and the education of their children."
Descovich says mask requirements have driven parental engagement to a level that she's never seen before, and that many have come to her with photos of their kids' faces with MRSA and infantigo, which are types of staph infections. Their concerns are very practical she says. "These parents are not out for a crusade."
"These decisions that parents are making are not necessarily coming from a place of science," says Lisa Gwynn, president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which supports in-school mask mandates. They're "coming more from just personal preference."
Gwynn testified against the state of Florida in a lawsuit challenging DeSantis' executive order. But the judge in that case sided with the governor, stating in his decision that the school boards "failed to prove that" the state's mask opt-out rules "facilitate the spread of COVID-19 in schools."
"This is why judges should remain in the courtroom and not in the clinic because everything that he said is totally wrong," says Gwynn. Gwynn acknowledges that COVID-19 poses a low risk of serious illness to young children but says mask mandates are necessary because kids can still spread the disease to adults. She also says concerns that mask wearing in schools hinders childhood development are overblown. "Have these parents been inside a classroom?…[Teachers know that] kids are adjusting," Gwynn tells Reason. "That's what I love about working with children…they're very resilient."
Because compulsory, all-day masking is a new phenomenon, there are no long-term studies on its effect on childhood mental health and development. Are the benefits worth the potential costs? "We think of [masks] as a completely benign intervention, but they are not," says Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of health policy at Stanford who testified as an expert witness on behalf of the state of Florida in the lawsuit over the governor's executive order.
"We essentially reorganized our society around the control of a single infectious disease, when in fact, health is plural…A public action that benefits the reduction of one disease might hurt another disease. We have to think about these trade-offs all the time."
Bhattacharya points to an independent study of Florida schools that showed no statistical differences in the case rate between school districts that required masks and those that didn't. "I don't believe that there's any evidence that it actually did much as far as COVID-19 spread for kids to wear masks," says Bhattacharya.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller; graphics by Nodehaus; audio mixing by Ian Keyser
Photos: ERIC LALMAND/Belga/Sipa USA/Newscom; ev Radin/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Braulio Jatar / SOPA Images/Sipa/Newscom; John Nacion/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Lev Radin/Pacific Press/Newscom; Mark Hertzberg/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Jason Bergman/Sipa USA/Newscom; Mark Hertzberg/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom