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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Science in real time

Masks are on the back-to-school list again. Maybe. To mask or not to mask, that is the question; whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the outrageous return of the mask or to take arms against the school board and by opposing end them.

Typical COVID cloth masks can stop big droplets but not aerosolized virus. All studies assume masks are maintained properly. Few people do. When was the last time you boiled a face mask for 20 minutes to kill lingering viruses and bacteria? Even parents who carefully decontaminate their child’s mask every day have no control over how it’s worn. One teacher described her fifth-graders last year, insisting, “But Ms. L, I’m drinking my water!” Children master the art of manipulating rules early, their masks slowly sliding down below their noses.

Kathy Hartman of Spokane said her grandchildren “absolutely hate wearing masks and are already showing symptoms of fear” with stomach aches, loss of appetite and depression symptoms. Shannon Castelda, mother of a sophomore in the Central Valley School District, has struggled with mask requirements as a coach. There is no logical reason to play soccer while wearing a face mask, and even children know it.

The No. 1 cause of death in 2019 for children ages 0 to 17 was unintentional injury including drowning, at just over 4,000 deaths. According to CDC data for deaths attributed to COVID-19 as of Aug. 4, only 349 were children under 17, out of a total of 606,389 for all ages. They’re at greater risk of drowning.

Suicide ideation and suicide attempts are a more serious epidemic. Data for 2020 has not been released, but the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published by the CDC on June 18 reported a 31% increase in mental health related emergency department visits in the children 12 to 17.

There are less lethal but no less impactful problems with masking young children. They need to see faces. Kindergarten teachers know this. Research published in Scientific American backs them up. Children ages 4 to 6 lip-read to acquire language, and it’s even more critical for children learning English as a second language.

Masks may make us feel like we’re doing something to block airborne viruses, but their effectiveness has been under debate since the original emergency declaration over a year ago. In May 2020, the CDC published a review of pre-COVID research on mask effectiveness for flu viruses (0.08 to 0.12 micrometers, i.e. microns) which concluded no substantial effect based on 14 randomized controlled trials. A 1992 study published by the CDC on two standard masks reported “Neither surgical mask can effectively remove submicrometer sized aerosol particles.” COVID-19 virus is about 0.12 microns. In the same week public health pundits have recommended masking to block exhaled aerosolized viruses (less than 1 micron), and simultaneously reminded us cloth masks are not useful for blocking inhaled fine smoke particulates (2.5 to 10 microns). Say what?

Children under 12 are not eligible for the vaccine, but vaccines are not the only way to develop immunity. Many Americans are frustrated at the apparent lack of interest in boosting the natural immune system. A 2008 pre-polarization study of survivors of the 1918 influenza pandemic surprised researchers when it found 100% of the elderly survivors had B cells ready to fight off the same virus 90 years later. People like Dr. Rand Paul who have recovered from a COVID infection and declined the need for vaccination are on solid ground, because the science is not settled. Inferences from similar situations are as useful as hypothetical models in making best scientific guesses on how short or long immunity from natural infection or vaccination will last.

Meanwhile, the CDC cited concerns about fully vaccinated individuals being more infectious as carriers of virus and therefore potentially more hazardous to the unvaccinated, so everyone should wear masks. Rather like a mother telling her daughter, “I’m cold, so you need to wear a sweater.” Less than a week later, the relatively mainstream left-of-center publication reported good news from a Singapore study indicating vaccines make people less infectious, even in those exposed to the infamous delta variant.

We’re seeing real-time science in a political climate where “the science” is often treated as settled dogma instead of a process. If the delta surge in the U.S. crashes as fast as it has in Great Britain, the Netherlands and India, it will all be over before school starts.

Priority needs to be placed on the declared mental health emergency for children and youth, exemplified by this comment from one frustrated parent: “My oldest, a new freshman, went from engaged seventh-grader to a failing eighth-grader with brand new diagnosis of clinical depression. Do I support mandatory masking for schools? Hell, no. Just like every year in the history of man, every parent should be free to choose the risk acceptable to their family.”

We’ll see how school boards exercise their authority to set policies which make sense for the risks and risk tolerance of their communities. With a diversity of alternatives to public school available and a rise in parents choosing to home-school, school districts will face both community and financial pressure to be as responsive and inclusive as possible.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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