By: Dr. Will Flanders
In the aftermath of Monday’s ruling by a federal judge that mask mandates on airlines and public transportation were unconstitutional, scenes of passengers and flight attendants gleefully ripping off their face masks have been seen all over social media. This mask freedom appeared, at first, to extend beyond public transport to other areas of society, where masking was still required, including schools. In March, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) set a date of Apil 18th to end its two-year long mask mandate. But that decision was reversed by the administration on Tuesday night, with the justification that COVID-19 rates are increasing in Milwaukee. According to WISN 12 News, the district has a policy in place that masks will be required if the COVID-19 positivity rate is 1.5% or higher. If it reaches 3% the district will return to virtual instruction for five days.
MPS has had a mandatory mask policy in place since finally reopening to in-person learning in April 2021. Last month, the board voted to give Superintendent Posley the power to set COVID-related policies but directed him to consult with health officials, the teachers’ union and other administrators. Additionally, Superintendent Posley was given the authority to reinstate the mask requirements if transmission was rising in the city or school district.
According to a statement released by the Milwaukee Health Department, they support students wearing masks in schools. But regardless of what the health department may say, the district is disregarding the opinions of teachers and students who continue to be subjected to the mandates.
This decision is wholly inconsistent with the science about who is at risk from COVID-19. While COVID rates have increased slightly over the past few weeks, Milwaukee County remains at a “low” level of community transmission according to data from the CDC. Moreover, children have always been at the lowest risk of infection compared to the rest of the population. Over the course of the pandemic, about 12,865 people have died with COVID-19 in Wisconsin. But only 14 have been 19 years old or younger—about .1%.
In light of such low risks, there are a number of potential negative consequences of masking kids that ought to give MPS’s leadership pause. Research has found that mask wearing makes it more difficult for children to read emotional cues—a key component in developing social skills. Even more concerning are the potential impacts on speech development. As one MPS teacher related to WUWM reporter Emily Files: “As a teacher of young children where I’m teaching letter sounds — that’s hard sometimes without seeing the mouth and the way that you produce the letter sounds.” MPS already struggles mightily with student achievement. On the most recent round of the Forward Exam, proficiency rates in English/Language Arts fell below 20% even after accounting for the students who didn’t take the exam. This never-ending mask mandate will only serve to further exacerbate the problem.
In the aftermath of the ruling about masks on public transport, some defiant proponents of the mandate took to Twitter in full COVID regalia to proclaim that they would continue to mask up. This is, of course, not a problem. Even prior to COVID-19, individuals were free to wear face masks in public places. But the number of social media posts on this suggests that masking has come to represent something greater than the science: as a means of signaling to the broader public that the masker is a serious person who cares about their fellow man. This sort of virtue signaling is fine when the subject is one’s self. It becomes far more problematic when a generation of children are used as pawns for the whims of self-righteousness.
It is time for a bit of common sense to be applied among the segment of the population least at risk for serious consequences from COVID-19. Let the children of MPS join adults at a restaurant, or AmFam Field, or (now) even the airport in not being forced to wear a face covering. If MPS fails to do this, the district will continue to lose students to alternative educational options that are far more responsive to the needs and desires of students and their families.
Flanders is the research director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.