Since 2020, the United States has been uniquely aggressive in its masking of public schoolchildren. Most of Europe never required masking in schools. In fact several European health agencies explicitly advised against it for elementary school-age kids. The World Health Organization also advised against masking children Kindergarten-age and younger.
In the United States, few areas have been more aggressive in masking than reliably deep-blue Washington State. As state after state ended all mask mandates in January and February 2022, Washington held out for weeks. Finally, Governor Inslee, who still hasn’t relinquished State of Emergency Powers, joined the crowd to allow indoor masking to be optional in public spaces starting March 12th, 2022.
But this relaxation of mandates didn’t apply to public schools. Governor Inslee left the policies for unmasking up to each school district, as informed by their local public health directives.
In a nod to each County’s power dynamics and local conditions and bargaining agreements between the schools and teachers unions, he let each district fight it out at the district/county level.
Predictably, just as with remote schooling, the school districts with the most powerful left-leaning (and arguably outright leftist) unions are now demanding that the student-harming interventions continue. This is despite any evidence of efficacy, or that mandatory masking is worth the harm it imposes.
Sorry kids. At this writing, no date for you to uncover your face is set. You must mask-up 6 hours per day, 5 days per week, indefinitely. The far-too-powerful teachers unions are lobbying for forced masking to continue until “at least May 1st 2022,” an arbitrary date untethered to any kind of concrete conditions, measures or goals. And Seattle Public Schools, for its part, has conceded that any change to the mask guidance requires “bargaining with our labor union partners.”
Perhaps Los Angeles Public Schools will pull out a late “victory,” as LA Unified is still pushing back on a date, but even California bellweather San Francisco finally caved to public pressure and set March 12th as their mask-optional date. (More on Los Angeles here.)
To be sure, you can find some scattered parental support for King County teachers unions’ position. Just drop by a Seattle Public Schools parental group on Facebook or even a school board meeting, and you’ll see one or two speakers argue for continued compulsory masking. But with tens of thousands of parents on the other side, they are in an extreme minority. Add to this that there is a strong feeling among some parents I’ve heard from online that their child will be retaliated-against if they speak out against the wishes of this powerful union.
Let’s be clear. The only institution demanding the continued forced masking of 5-18 year olds in King County’s Public Schools are the teachers unions. You’re not hearing this pressure from a broad coalition of parents or students. You’re not hearing it from the Governor. You’re not even hearing this demand come from health agencies organically.
Think about that. Your kid might want to go mask-optional. They have done all things asked of them by adults over the two years of this highly disruptive pandemic.
But because there exists a highly organized, well-funded institutional lobbying group, it probably won’t happen until some arbitrary date. This force is paid for, ultimately, by our tax dollars. This body is not a scientific body. Nor does it offer any evidence the forced masking intervention is effective, or certainly not the path of least harm, when you factor in all the downsides of masking. They don’t offer evidence this policy reliably lowers case-counts or hospitalization when employed in school settings. I really marvel at that. Any kind of illusion that they’re looking out for your student’s mental health, enjoyment, achievement, opportunity or outcomes should be shattered at this point.
Look. We don’t have to guess. We have now run thousands of natural experiments in this nation, and around the world, over two years. Through it all, there is not a single school district you can find which, when it went unmasked or even mask-optional, experienced any noticeable upticks in hospitalization, or even major outbreaks tied to the unmasking decision. Why is that? Should we follow the science, or nah? Do we expect students not to notice?
The mechanics of this are somewhat complex. There’s a State Level order which is expiring March 12th. There’s a County level order which is also expiring March 12th. There’s a Department of Health Face Covering Guidance which is also expiring March 12th.
Regarding that Department of Health order, last week, the heads of local teachers unions here in King County, Washington sent the letter below to Interim County Director of Public Health Dennis Worsham and chief medical advisor Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, lobbying to keep the mask-mandate in place for school kids through “at least May 1st.” See if you can spot the citation of any scientific studies in their advocacy:
But this still leaves the contract between SPS and the union, outlined by the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Education Association (SEA). It mentions masks/masking/mask 21 times. Thus, the reason Seattle kids will be required to mask-up deal with a contractual agreement between two other parties. Rumor has it that bargaining has begun this week (and just this week) on relaxing these terms, but this could well open up a new can of worms, as SEA will likely “demand” things in return for “conceding” and “allowing” students and families to make their own choices on masking.
Got that? Party A wants something from B, and so they’re withholding something from C to get it. Don’t we call that a hostage situation?
Turning back to the union letter above, for months and months these same leaders no doubt urged us to “follow the science” when setting policy. Yet they don’t cite a single study which shows that mask mandates in schools change outcomes, certainly not to the extent that they are worth reductions in social connection, learning loss, or even just enjoyment of school.
Typically, the way to reduce scientific uncertainty in situations like this is to conduct randomized cluster trials. Two randomized cluster trials have been done regarding masking, and neither of them say that mandating masks is a statistically significant way to reduce hospitalization or spread. Dr. Tracy Beth Hoeg has been looking at two very similar and nearby school districts: Fargo ND and West Fargo ND — one required masks and one did not — comparing case rates. The results do not make the mask-mandaters case very strong:
The UK government commissioned a close look at the efficacy of masks in school settings. It failed to identify any clear evidence in favor of this practice.
But the teachers unions have their own reasons. Their stated “rationale” focuses on:
- “First, we believe it could result in significant anxiety for many students, families and educators, and exacerbate the mental health crisis for them.”
- “Second, we believe the negative impacts of lifting the mask mandate would be most heavily felt by our Black, Indigineous and People of Color communities as well as by people with disabilities.”
- “Finally, we believe it could result in a significant number of students and/or educators choosing to go on leave, which would worsen our current educator staffing shortage and unusually high number of student absences”
The first reason these “educators” cite is that somehow making masking optional “could exacerbate mental anxiety.” Any studies to back that up? And if it is even true, whose fault is it that somehow returning to normal is anxiety-producing?
The risk to kids is low. It always has been. Since the start of the pandemic, over two full years, the CDC notes that the number of 0-17 year olds who have died with COVID (not even due to COVID) is 865, as of this writing. That’s out of 74 million kids in that age group:
It’s not like the danger of severe outcomes posed by COVID is higher here. King County’s vaccination rate is among the very highest in the nation, with 95.6% of those 12 and older receiving at least 1 dose, and 87.8% who have completed vaccination series.
This is the county that teachers unions characterize as risky to unmask before “at least May 1st”
The teachers unions insist that somehow letting kids and their families decide whether to mask up or not doesn’t “center the need of BIPOC communities.” What? Can you help me understand that? Where is it decided that all people of certain identity groups wish their kids to remain masked? If you want to make an identity-based argument, surely it should start with the fact that minority students’ test scores have dropped the most alarmingly during the two years of interruption of schooling? And another major disparity of outcome is between public and private schools — soon, they will be able to compare the mask-free private schoolers with the mask-wearing public schoolers. What signal does that amplify? Do the adults think that kids don’t notice, or talk about it with their friends?
The actions these teachers unions are taking here decrease enjoyment of school and widen disparities of outcome. Already, Washington State families have pulled kids out of public schools during the pandemic — enrollment levels are down more than 4% from 2019. Between October 2019 and October 2019 alone, 39,000 fewer students enrolled in public school in Washington State. Parents are choosing private school, homeschooling, or to leave the state. It’s already likely to result in a $500,000,000 hit to school budgets. The longer we keep kids from normalcy, the more this will increase.
The Seattle Educators Association one of the unions which demanded that teachers get priority vaccination but then kept schools closed more than just about any other district in the nation. In fact, even while they were lobbying for vaccination priority, 74% of them said that even full vaccination wasn’t enough to return to in person learning.
What happened next was that the Seattle Education Association and the Seattle Public School Board together kept kids locked out of in person learning longer than just about any district in the nation. Predictably, math and other test scores dropped at a record pace for ‘20-21. The teachers unions who were pushing hardest for prolonged remote schooling haven’t even acknowledged this was a mistake.
Meanwhile, adults (including many teachers) will go to grocery stores, restaurants, bars and more… entirely unmasked this spring. Sorry kids.
There is direct evidence that masking reduces the ability to be heard and understood. After 2 years of social isolation, restoring connection matters. Burden of proof is on those who demand this intervention, not on those who want to make it optional.
A better approach
We have known for some time now that one-way masking works. A well-fitting N95 or KN95 is nearly as good as multi-way masking. Masking should be optional, and everyone’s choice should be respected.
These are the adults we have hired, and that we taxpayers pay, to help educate the next generation. They should be concerned with student outcomes, but these outcomes are not looking good. After two full years of interruption of schooling, why is it that the mask mandates are still on those least at risk? Prolonged social isolation is sure to lead to higher dropout rates, poor academic performance, even suicide ideation.
Once we allow the kids to go unmasked, we need to look into just how it is that we’ve allowed these labor unions to hold tens of thousands of kids social connection, music, theatre, sport, academic excellence back. A child gets maybe twelve years tops of childhood. Adults fighting amongst one another for power has ripped away two of those twelve years for an entire generation of Seattle-area kids. Truly, and I mean this sincerely: shame on us for allowing it to continue.
Steve’s a Seattle-based entrepreneur and software leader, husband and father of three. He’s half Canadian, and east-coast born and raised. Steve has made the Pacific Northwest his home since 1991, when he moved here to work for Microsoft. He’s started and sold multiple Internet companies. Politically independent, he writes on occasion about city politics and national issues, and created Alignvote in the 2019 election cycle. He holds a BS in Applied Math (Computer Science) and Business from Carnegie Mellon University, a Masters in Computer Science from Stanford University, and an MBA from the Harvard Business School, where he graduated a George F. Baker Scholar. Steve volunteers when time allows with Habitat for Humanity, University District Food Bank, Technology Access Foundation (TAF) and other organizations in Seattle.