RALEIGH — Parents in Wake County are mobilizing in an effort to make sure their children will not be compelled to wear masks when the 2021-22 school year begins this fall.
Neighboring Harnett County Schools has stated they will not be requiring masks this fall, as have several charter schools and private schools, like Thales Academy. Parents in Wake County are trying to make that happen in their district with a larger goal of ending the practice statewide.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced on July 9 that vaccinated students and education staff no longer would have to wear masks indoors. As there is no vaccine for children under the age of 12 yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC’s new guidance, some argue, creates a medical discrimination situation within K-12 and higher education institutions.
Dr. Tracy Taylor of Raleigh has been tracking the mask debate since the start of the pandemic. She says that both CDC and state-level guidance on mask wearing have been “consistently inconsistent.”
“This medical discrimination is creating an opportunity for other students, staff, and admin to bully those who are wearing masks about the vaccine,” said Taylor of granting privileges to the vaccinated over the unvaccinated. “It essentially puts a target on their back when students are the least at-risk cohort.”
Taylor added that some students, staff, and admin may not be able to get the vaccine, and asked, “Should they wear a mask forever?”
She said that the CDC’s recent mask guidance emphasizes flexibility at local levels. That in turn should open the door for the Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) to update the Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit to allow local districts to change their mask policies, she says.
“There have been multiple studies showing adverse effects and pathogens on masks worn by children, but to date, there has yet to be a study done showing the positive impact of long-term daily mask wearing by children in terms of decreasing the spread of COVID-19 in an education setting,” said Taylor.
A June report to the State Board of Education by Duke University’s ABC Science Collaborative claimed that wearing masks was the reason for the lack of virus transmission in the state’s K-12 schools, yet the report failed to give any substantive data backing that claim. The report also made a major reversal on social distancing, claiming that “Distance did not predict infection,” and recommended eliminating quarantining procedures.
Critics, including Duke researcher Tom Nicholson writing in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, have pointed out a major flaw in ABC Science Collaborative’s assumption masks were the cause of low transmission: no control group.
“The researchers might as well have attributed the low COVID-19 rate in schools to wearing shoes,” Nicholson wrote of the ABC Science Collaborative’s June report.
Taylor said that the ABC Collaborative’s findings were akin to saying, “Incidence was lower in schools than in the community, so masks worked.” She added that the burden of proof on the group was to show masks slowed spread, but they didn’t do that since there was no control group.
A report published earlier this year, in which the ABC Science Collaborative took part, specifically looked at 11 North Carolina school districts and almost 100,000 students and staff over nine weeks of in-person instruction. Researchers found “extremely limited within-school secondary transmission of SARS-CoV-2, as determined by contact tracing.”
The study, which also claimed the use of 6-foot social distancing and use of masks were key to low transmission, found “No instances of child-to adult transmission of SARS-CoV-2 were reported within schools.”
Studies raising concerns about increased carbon dioxide levels from daily long-term mask wearing such as that occurring in schools are starting to gain attention.
On the same day that the ABC Collaborative published its report, the Journal of JAMA Pediatrics also published a study of the levels of carbon dioxide being inhaled by children wearing masks all day. The findings included high and unacceptable levels of carbon dioxide in inhaled air after just a brief amount of time.
The JAMA study concluded with the suggestion that “decision makers weigh the hard evidence produced by these experimental measurements accordingly, which suggest that children should not be forced to wear face masks.”
Amy Marshall, the president of the Carolina Teachers Alliance, is also concerned about continued masking in schools and has created a petition to allow schools to end the practice, addressed to NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen and Gov. Roy Cooper.
“The idea behind the petition was to convince Gov. Cooper and Secretary Cohen to lift the mask mandate based on the science data,” said Marshall. “The science and data just do not support keeping kids masked all day in school.”
Marshall said that the risk of children becoming severely ill or dying from this virus are so small that it does not merit compelled masking for up to 11 hours a day for students who partake of aftercare options.
“Kids are not the drivers of COVID-19 spread,” said Marshall.
And she’s correct, at least according to statements made by NCDHHS state health director and chief medical officer Dr. Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson to the N.C. State Board of Education in fall of 2020.
Tilson said children “have relatively low rates of infection and are not driving our increases,” and that they were “not seeing schools as a big driver of cases.” Those statements continued to be the case throughout much of the rest of the 2020-21 school year.
Taylor concurs with the low-risk for children. She cited information from the DHHS website that for children ages zero to 17, the survival rate for COVID-19 is 99.9967 percent — a case fatality rate of only .0033 percent.
Taylor also expressed frustration that government entities do not include natural immunity in their policies and decision making. She said that if a student has already had COVID-19, they have antibodies, T- and B-cell immunity and shouldn’t have to be vaccinated or masked.
“Natural immunity is just not part of the discussion,” said Taylor. “And it should be.”
Both Taylor and Marshall are backers of the legislation targeting masks in schools and the potential for a legal suit.
Senate Bill 173, the Free the Smiles Act, would allow districts to make masking optional. The House passed the bill; however, the Senate failed to concur and sent the bill back to committee for further discussion. Chair of the Senate Health Committee Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth) said they wanted more discussion about “further protections and input from parents in children’s health decisions.”
Marshall said one suggestion from parents would be to require parental consent to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Currently, children ages 12 and up can be offered the vaccine without such consent from a guardian or parent.
Citing a mask policy map created by information aggregator site Burbio, Marshall noted that currently only 10 states, including North Carolina, have a mask mandate in place for K-12 students. The other nine states are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, Virginia and Washington.