Education Secretary Cardona Misrepresents Wisconsin School Mask Study

Will Flanders, Research Director

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona recently attempted to make the case for masking in schools by citing a number of different studies that purported to show their positive effects in a series of tweets. However, his use of one study out of Wisconsin shows either a willful misrepresentation of the data, or an ineptitude in interpreting research that should be concerning to families impacted by U.S. Department of Education policy.

The study in question looked at transmission rates of COVID-19 in rural Wood County, Wisconsin. They follow 17 schools in the county, all of which required masking, and provide a description of the transmission rates that were found. Cardona claimed that the study found a “37% lower incidence of COVID than the surrounding community,” and claimed that this was scientific evidence that masking of students was effective. But this study makes no such claim. The 37% number found in the study is merely a comparison of COVID transmission in the school with transmission in the surrounding community—there was no control group. A control group is vital to a comprehensive study because it allows the scientists to exclude outside factors.  There are plenty of other explanations for why transmission was lower in the school.  The preponderance of the evidence suggests that kids are less likely to transmit COVID-19 than adults. But whatever the truth, the study cited is not evidence one way or the other.

The misrepresentation on the part of Cardona was so great that the author of the study in question took to Twitter to correct the record:

“Secretary Cardona, I was the senior author of this study. Our study is not able to give any information about the role masks played in the observed low in-school transmission rates. We had no control group so don’t know if the rate would have been different without masks.”

The tweet remains up as of this writing, despite attempts by the author of the study and many others to correct the record, and the Secretary has not explained the reasoning behind his misrepresentation. There are problems with the other studies he cites as well. None of the other studies cited has a control group. Even worse, as pointed out by American Federation for Children Director of Research, Corey DeAngelis, the fourth study cited is purely a simulation—meaning that it is guaranteed to find an effect of masking if an assumption that it works is included in the model.

Throughout the pandemic, the mantra of those in favor of greater restrictions on our freedom has been that we should “trust the science.” However, that seems to only be applied when the science tells the restrictors what they want to hear. Secretary Cardona’s sloppiness when it comes to research that doesn’t favor his beliefs should be of concern to families not only when it comes to COVID-19, but also other areas where the federal government is likely to overreach under President Biden, such as discipline policy.

As schools navigate creating policies that are reflective of their community’s values, giving parents more power to send their child to a different school is more vital than ever. In Wisconsin, a change in school funding system to a backpack funding system would allow students to attend a school that best meets their preferences. Policymakers must remain cognizant of the fact just because a government official espouses a respect for science, it doesn’t mean they can properly understand it.

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