While children have been mask-free in schools for months now, the debate about requiring masks has resurfaced, with outlets like the New York Times citing “experts” that say it’s time to mask up once again, citing concerns about COVID, influenza, and RSV.

To date, school districts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have reinstated mask mandates in public schools, and in Massachusetts, students are “expected” to wear a mask during school hours. 

Everyone loves the party game “Two Truths and a Lie.” Can you identify which of the three following statements about masking children is a lie?

A. Experts are expressing concern over the potential downsides to masking kids.
B. Young children in most European countries do not wear masks, even in school.
C. There’s solid scientific evidence that masking kids is effective.  

A. True. It is undeniable that masking children in school comes with significant costs to learning, mental health, and social/emotional development. Early childhood is a critical time when children learn social cues, language, and other communication skills. Babies recognize faces from a very early stage and toddlers learn to talk by watching how their caregivers form words with their lips. Face masks severely restrict that learning and we do not know the effect of long-term face mask wearing on the development of millions of children. 

B. True. When it comes to masks on young children (meaning those below the age of about 10), the United States has been an outlier. And the CDC’s recommendation to mask children as young as age two makes the U.S. extreme compared to the masking policies of other countries. As three doctors wrote together in The Atlantic

In contrast, many countries—the U.K., Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and others—have not taken the U.S.’s approach, and instead follow World Health Organization guidelines, which recommend against masking children ages 5 and younger, because this age group is at low risk of illness, because masks are not “in the overall interest of the child,” and because many children are unable to wear masks properly. Even for children ages 6 to 11, the WHO does not routinely recommend masks, because of the “potential impact of wearing a mask on learning and psychosocial development.”

C. False. Masking has been studied a lot. But there’s no solid evidence that masking is effective in the school setting. Studies that have attempted to measure the effectiveness of masks have not included children; have not adjusted for other factors (like vaccination rates, other mitigation measures etc.) to isolate for the effect of masks; or have found negligible benefit in universal masking in the school setting. This isn’t surprising considering that cloth masks—which meet most school mask mandate requirements—have been shown to be relatively ineffective. And it’s also not surprising when we consider that children may not always wear masks properly and consistently. For a more thorough breakdown (debunking!) of the studies cited to support mask mandates in schools, see here, here, and here

And this lack of scientific evidence for masking goes beyond COVID. The New York Times article mentioned earlier linked to “evidence” on effectiveness which, when dug into, failed to show evidence of a benefit to masking. 

Bottom line:  Parents and educators had a very hard time grappling with the COVID pandemic. We have had to weigh the mitigation efforts—which were intended to protect the vulnerable from illness and death—against our desire for normalcy for our children. It hasn’t always been clear which mitigation measures have been effective at controlling the spread of disease. Much less clear is how these measures have stood up to a cost-benefit analysis.

It’s past time to let individual students and their families have #MaskChoice, so that they can weigh the evidence and their individual risks and benefits without unjustified universal mandates.