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Opinion: Requiring kids to wear masks all day at school does more harm than good

While we all want to ‘do something’ to reduce suffering, we ought to act prudently and guard against unintended consequences

Do masks provide a genuine benefit to school children without causing harm?
Do masks provide a genuine benefit to school children without causing harm?
Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash

With the significant mental health implications of masking children, and the tenuous case for masks providing a significant benefit, requiring children to wear masks all day in school does more harm than good.

When COVID-19 came on the scene, we naturally followed the human tendency to want to “do something.” For a county or school district hoping to create the best scenario for students and faculty, advocating for wearing face masks is an understandable way to try to “do something.” But do masks provide a genuine benefit to school children without causing harm?

As we head back into the school year, debate is heating up over this question, with parents, teachers and administrators debating whether to require masks in school in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In Utah, most school districts have announced their intent to hold school as normal.

Some parents and teachers are relieved, and some are upset.

Everyone wants to prevent unnecessary suffering, but when a communicable disease is in the picture, there’s a lot of room for disagreement about what prevention should look like.

We know that smart hygiene practices — washing hands, covering coughs and sneezes, keeping children home when they’re ill — provide measurable benefits in reducing the spread of disease. But the research on using face masks is much less conclusive, even for their use in surgical settings.

For many parents and teachers who dealt with the physical, psychological and emotional effects of mask mandates last year, that’s not enough evidence to subject children to masks again.

Since advocates and opponents of mask mandates for children can both point to research in support of their positions, let’s take a look at data on actual outcomes. A report updated and released weekly by the American Pediatric Academy and the Children’s Hospital Association tracks COVID-19 statistics in children. It shows cumulative cases per 100,000 children state by state (over the past 18 months). Utah sits right in the middle at about 6,200 cases.

What’s significant is that the distribution of higher and lower rates of cases doesn’t correlate with state mandates. States that held school mostly online last year, states that had in-person school with mask mandates and states that had school without mandates are scattered fairly evenly across the list.

A number of factors could be at play here, but first impressions suggest that masking doesn’t appear to have affected children’s health outcomes. If it did, we would expect states with strict mandates and delayed in-person school to have fewer cumulative cases as a rule.

Data collected by the COVID-19 School Response Dashboard, run by education groups including the School Superintendents Association, found that schools and school districts without mask mandates had lower case rates than schools with mandates.

Face masks were designed to be worn in hospitals to prevent saliva droplets from landing on patients and fellow staff. But for students, wearing a face mask for up to seven hours per day — 10 for students in extracurriculars — along with social distancing in school and constant reminders of danger presents some hygiene health risks — and significant mental health risks.

One second grade teacher in Utah County said she saw children playing with masks and touching their faces more frequently. “It was often the children who wore masks faithfully who experienced more sick days.”

This isn’t surprising, considering that the human body is designed to expel wastes through exhaling. Holding those wastes against the face creates a whole new set of problems as children inhale the bacteria and viruses their body is trying to get rid of, and those wastes sit in a moist environment on the skin.

The same teacher said she saw emotional strain under last year’s mandates. “Children rely on facial expressions to interpret what they hear. They respond to facial cues to interact and respond appropriately to teachers and peers.” The harm done when that key part of human interaction is eliminated should not be underestimated.

Many families also dealt with “maskne” — mask acne — this year. This is no small matter when the maskne is a staph infection that is hard to get rid of and may develop into a long-term problem.

A Utah County kindergarten teacher with 15 years of experience said she is concerned about the long-term mental health effects on her students. She said many teachers dealt with significant behavior issues last year. She is seeing children who have developed an unhealthy worry that they will make everyone around them sick.

Teachers and parents of children all the way through high school have described the same paralyzing fear in children. In some cases, it has caused anxiety levels leading to withdrawal from social interactions.

While we all want to “do something” to reduce suffering, we ought to act prudently and guard against unintended consequences. Masks for children appear to do more harm to their development than provide effective safeguards against spreading disease. Without more solid evidence that points to masks providing a measurable protection against respiratory illness among school-age children, requiring kids to wear masks risks teaching them to be afraid of their bodies and afraid of their peers.

There’s strong support among parents and teachers in Utah to go back to school without masks. For the sake of children’s immediate and long-term mental health, it’s time to do just that.

Autumn Foster Cook is a freelance writer from Utah.