Misunderstanding Masking

Yesterday I posted about how much the pandemic has changed in just the last six weeks– and why this change requires that we again consider universal indoor masking in our elementary and middle schools (see Reconsidering Masks).

I’ve come to be uncomfortable with the district’s optional mask policy for another reason as well: it contributes to a harmful misunderstanding about how masks work to prevent the spread of covid.

Who Do Masks Protect?

Everyday non-medical masks are effective primarily because an infected person spreads much less virus if they are wearing one. This is particularly important when it comes to covid-19, where people often don’t even know they are infected (about 25% of those with covid never experience any symptoms).

Wearing a mask is thus more about protecting those around you than it is about protecting yourself. Yes, wearing a mask can provide some benefit to the person who wears it. But most of the benefit is to the safety of those who interact with the wearer. This is why letting each person choose for themselves– a good general principle– doesn’t work in the case of keeping unvaccinated kids safe in school, because families aren’t able to protect themselves from the “option” that other families take.

All Rights Have Limits

We all accept and understand this reality in other situations. We understand that, in a civilized community, we need basic rules to protect people from the harmful choices of others. The reason we don’t allow smoking in public buildings is a recognition that a person’s “option” to smoke also endangers those around the smoking person. The reason we don’t allow drunk driving is a recognition that a person’s “option” to do so endangers not just the drunk driver, but everyone else on the road. This doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t allow people to make choices about cigarettes and alcohol in other contexts.

The same goes with masks right now in the context of schools filled with unvaccinated kids, given where we are in the pandemic.

Masks Matter

And masks work. I know there is a lot of misinformation out there about masks, particularly on social media. So I think we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for wondering about their usefulness. But just because people genuinely believe in false claims about masks, or share them loudly and repeatedly, doesn’t make them any more true. There are now so many studies showing the effectiveness of masks that we have so-called “meta-analyses”– studies that collect all the different findings of previous studies. You can see the results for yourself in places like here, here, and here.

There are even studies that look specifically on how well masks work in schools. In one, researchers at Duke University collected data from 100 different school districts and found that universal masking in schools was an effective strategy for reducing in-school transmission of covid, even without social distancing.

Moving Forward

Indoor universal masking in our elementary and middle schools, until all children have had the opportunity to be vaccinated, would reduce the spread of covid among our kids, as well as their families and friends. This, in turn, would not only make everyone safer, it would also reduce the disruption, social isolation, and uncertainty of large-scale quarantines, school closures, and other consequences of a surge in cases. Is there anyone who wants to go back to all of that?

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