As COVID-19 cases rise and the school year nears, the debate about masking children has escalated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and prominent doctors groups have called for children to wear masks in schools, but these recommendations from health authorities lack adequate evidence. Instead, “the science” surrounding children and COVID-19 suggests that local school districts—or better, parents—should decide on a case by case basis when masking offers children a benefit or, just as important, when the risks of masking instead outweigh the potential benefit.

What does “the science say”?

According to the CDC, children can be infected with the virus and those most “at-risk” for severe illness from COVID-19 are children with medical conditions such as obesity, diabetes, asthma or chronic lung disease, sickle cell disease, or immunosuppression. The World Health Organization has also reported similar findings, including very few outbreaks involving children or schools.

Other studies highlight the outcomes of children wearing masks. Neeraj Sood, Ph.D., and Jay Bhattacharya, M.D., Ph.D., have concluded that “the benefits of masks in preventing serious illness or death from COVID-19 among children are infinitesimally small.” More studies found the potential for child death, hospitalization, and multisystem inflammatory syndrome from COVID-19 overall is very minimal.

When looking at “the science,” it is helpful to look at similar diseases and the impact on youth. Let’s compare the risk to the common flu (influenza).

Sood and Bhattacharya have concluded that “COVID-19 is less of a threat to children than accidents or the common flu. The survival rate among American children with confirmed cases is approximately 99.99%; remarkably, recent studies find an even higher survival rate.” Additionally, Dr. Nicole Saphier has said that “even with the flu shot, there are more flu-associated hospitalizations with kids than COVID-19.”

Clinical trials for children under 12 are still underway to evaluate the safety and efficacy of the currently authorized emergency-use vaccines. What will happen if the vaccine is not approved for those under 12? Mandatory mask-wearing until children are 12?

What does “the science say” about the impact of mask-wearing on children and their growth and development?

In general, the American Academy of Pediatrics has said that the “pandemic has taken a heartbreaking toll on children, and it’s not just their education that has suffered but their mental, emotional and physical health.” Consider then that masking children is associated with: increases in anxiety and depression; decreases in communication and socialization skill development; increases in headaches, face rashes and redness, and impaired facial recognition; and increases in tooth decay.

When it comes to communication, this is a key skill imperative for someone’s entire life. When wearing a mask that covers the lower half of the face, children lose the experiences of mimicking expressions, emotions such as laughing and smiling become less recognizable, and bonding between student and teacher and from student to student is hindered.

Has anyone taken a close look at the impacts of mandatory mask-wearing on student learning, growth, and development? Perhaps the U.S. Department of Education or the Department of Health and Human Services should. The National Institutes of Health gave out $40 billion in research grants in 2020, yet less than 0.5% went to COVID-19-related research.

Top-down, one-size-fits-all mask mandates do not fit all and are not appropriate when it comes to our K-12 students. Our students are far too unique, including personal learning styles and health issues.

Overall, there needs to be more evidence produced to suggest that the benefits of masking all children outweigh the costs, evidence that weighs COVID-19 risks against child development and learning loss risks.

A district’s (or school’s) specific situation, including conditions such as infection and vaccination rates, must inform decision-making on face mask usage. The pandemic has taken a dramatically different shape in some areas of the country versus others. National and community data on the landscape of COVID-19 should be relied upon to help with this.

Unique local conditions call for unique solutions. Presently, a majority of states have adopted either “mask mandate banned” or “no mask mandate — locality flexibility” policies. On the other hand, six states, including New York and Virginia, will require masks whether a student is vaccinated or not.

You’re only a child once. Our children are our nation’s most precious resource. Let’s make sure to take a close look at what “the science says” and let school districts make decisions.