CDC Has Three Recommendations on the Masking of Children. None of Them Match.

And the Governor’s Executive Order will outlive the Virginia law that directs schools to adhere to CDC guidance, even if they think they can figure out what it is.

by James C. Sherlock

Many quote the “science” that favors their opinions.

Virginia law requires:

…each school board to provide such in-person instruction in a manner in which it adheres, to the maximum extent practicable, to any currently applicable mitigation strategies for early childhood care and education programs and elementary and secondary schools to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 that have been provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A little-noted provision of that law is that it expires on August 1 of this year. It will not pass again. The debate will continue after that date, but so will the executive order.

Regardless, I thought it would be useful to go to the source, CDC, and see if its science-based “currently applicable mitigation strategies” match its politically influenced  guidance.

I cannot certify that they do. The CDC offers at least three different recommendations for protecting children from COVID.

None of them match. And there is strong evidence that the CDC changed its school masking recommendations under National Education Association pressure.

Three CDC recommendations.

1.  CDC has updated guidance on COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools six times since July 1 of last year. The latest recommendation on masks for children in school came in August.

In that update, CDC famously recommended universal indoor masking by all* students (ages 2 years and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. The asterisk is for ADA exceptions. That recommendation was published in August 2021.

2.  For another take, see the recommendation on CDC’s Guide to Masks page updated Jan. 21, 2022. It recommends all people two and over who are not vaccinated wear masks. It further recommends a scientific test for considering wearing one even if you are vaccinated:

If you are up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines, to maximize protection and prevent possibly spreading COVID-19 to others, wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission.

The Guide to Masks says you live in an “area of substantial or high transmission” if your county has 50 or more new cases per 100,000 people over the past week or an 8% positivity rate or higher. That makes scientific sense. That page offers special considerations for children but makes no mention of K-12 settings.  

OK, let’s say the Guide to Masks authors forgot to mention the schools issue.

3.  But, perhaps most importantly for this discussion, the CDC recommendation in its Science Brief: Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in K-12 Schools and Early Care and Education Programs, updated December 2021, is once again that all people two and over who are not vaccinated wear masks.

The authors cited the studies for that recommendation.

Clearly, someone at CDC spotted the disconnect in the science brief and stuck in an otherwise unexplained sentence:  

In K-12 settings, CDC recommends universal indoor masking regardless of vaccination status.

I would  like to see that approval draft to see at what level that rather sudden sentence was inserted, but that is just me. No study was cited for that recommendation. No data. It was just added on to otherwise-scientific statements.

You and I have no idea why they took that leap.

CDC did not share its rationale, much less study findings. Some may wish to assume it was a decision made to avoid blame if something should occur that is unexplained by current data.

But perhaps that is unfair.

Awaiting further guidance to reconcile the differences. Perhaps CDC can explain. It should. No one else can, though some here will undoubtedly try.

What to do? What, exactly, are we — and our school boards — to make of that unexplained transition, other than CDC’s general guidance to K-12 schools is different than its scientific guidance?

Did the Virginia school boards that have mandated masks know that information? Did they consider letting parents of vaccinated kids decide if they should wear masks?

In CDC’s defense, it did not mandate masks in school. Or anywhere else. It does not have the authority to do that.  The President can mandate them on federal property and interstate transportation, but that is pretty much it.

Some school boards have taken one of CDC’s three recommendations and turned it into mandates with no exception for vaccinated children. They claim they are required to do so by the state law quoted above.

Some judge will have to decide.

Perhaps she will consider the email evidence from a FOIA request by Americans for Public Trust that shows that the NEA successfully lobbied the CDC for that guidance.

The largest teachers union in the United States influenced federal health officials to include rules for universal masking in school buildings, according to newly published emails obtained by a government watchdog group.

The union, the National Education Association, swayed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after the CDC announced on May 13 that vaccinated people could stop wearing masks. The union told the agency in an email that it was prepared to issue a statement criticizing the decision and calling for guidance that masks should be worn specifically in schools, prompting a White House staffer to intervene. The CDC released updated masking guidelines for schools the following day, saying schools should maintain universal masking requirements and “physical distancing should be maximized to the greatest extent possible.”

Look, I grant that CDC has a hard job in this and that it is not a professional communications organization.

But no one can offer a scientific reason as opposed to a political opinion (see the NEA) why schools should not follow CDC’s science on child masking.

Otherwise, see you in August.

Updated Jan 25, 2022 at 8:07 AM