WATCH: Doctors for Open Schools USA and American Federation of Teachers debate efficacy of face masks for children

Are face masks the new normal or a useless gesture serving a crisis mentality? Open Schools USA and the American Federation of Teachers brought their best experts to engage in debate.

Libby Emmons Brooklyn NY

A panel was presented virtually on Thursday night, hosted by the American Federation of Teachers and Open Schools USA to try to get to the bottom of COVID safety for schools. Stunning issues arose, such as that many doctors feel they are prevented from speaking out against CDC guidelines due to their employers' restrictions against it, likely due to liability concerns, as well as disagreements about whether society should embrace this "new normal" or work to preserve elements of society and culture that were better before the pandemic than our mid to post-pandemic reimagining is turning out to be.

But a key component of this conversation, and much of the reason for it, had to do with children being forced to wear face masks in schools. In public schools across the country, and specifically in America's biggest cities, kids have a face-mask dress code. From the moment they step onto school grounds from the moment they leave it, kids are required to cover their faces. In class, in hallways, at lunch, outdoors, while playing instruments, (brass and woodwinds are not allowed at some Brooklyn schools) kids are told to mask up.

That's much of what brought Open Schools USA into conversation with the American Federation of Teachers and its president, Randi Weingarten. Erich Hartmann, a Westchester dad who was spurred to activism after seeing his kids suffer from the depletion of education and the implementation of masking once schools were open, and Michelle Walker, a mom with similar inclinations.

The Open Schools team brought two doctors to the expert panel, as did the AFT. While both doctors presenting on behalf of Open Schools USA spoke about findings that brought into question the concept of perpetual masking in school, the doctors who spoke for the AFT intoned the nature of the crisis.

Hartmann told The Post Millennial that he was glad for the dialogue, and hoped there could be more of them, but that the suppression of information that runs contrary to the mask-up guidance has "created this 'artificial consensus' in the mainstream, which has been profoundly unhelpful."

Dr. Irwin Redlener, for the AFT, addressed masking, saying that because there are no federal laws enforcing CDC recommendations, the guidance from government agencies ends up in the hands of locals who may or may not follow it. For Redlener, this means children are at risk.

"Even though we'll have recommendations from CDC or the FDA," Redlener said, "we have no enforcement possibility of any policies in this realm by the federal government. So it's left up to this kind of hodgepodge of people with different views and ideas about it. And this is one of the reasons that we have to worry about children being exposed and being vulnerable to COVID."

Redlener wants to see evidence that masks do not work before lifting any kind of masking requirements. Dr. Tracy Hoeg brought data to show that masking might not be an effective means to curb contagion among young people, who have been far less susceptible to the negative impacts of the disease. While more than 700,000 Americans have died from Covid, less than 500 of those individuals have been under the age of 18.

Hoeg said that data from the UK as well as Denmark showed that children are at less risk than adults, noting that "children are at approximately the same risk of hospitalization unvaccinated as 40 to 50 year old adults that are double vaccinated," Hoeg said. As to mortality, she said "the mortality risk for children unvaccinated is the same as, or less, as about a 20 to 29-year-old double vaccinated adult." She presented additional studies, including one that found no benefit to cloth, as opposed to surgical, masking, and went into great detail.

"I'm totally open to believing that masking kids is going to have an impact, I just don't think that we have really solid data to say this is how much it works," Hoeg said. For her, the negative impact of masking was a far greater factor in determining if children should be required to cover their faces all day at school than the unproven gains made by masking.

Dr. Patrisse Harris jumped in to say that "we do have good data that masking works," though she didn't cite any studies done to show that masking children prevents transmission of COVID. A recent outbreak in Marin County, California, where a teacher was unmasked to read but the listening children were masked still resulted in that teacher spreading COVID to 55 percent of the students in her class.

"We should always be on our journey for data and looking at— but I don't think we have any data to say 'just don't worry, you know, just don't wear masks, don't worry about it,'" Harris said. "And I think we do have data to show that really it's about… that masking and testing and yes, the data is evolving and growing." For Harris, studies were not as key a component of decision making as letting different localities "make the decisions that need to be made."

Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, who was hosted by Open Schools USA, said that masking for children was not an effective strategy to limit spread. He said "the evidence on masks—I've been evaluating epidemiological data for decades—is incredibly weak." In large part, this is because kids don't wear the masks properly.

"We're not operating in an environment where we know nothing," he said. "I think we don't actually have very much evidence supporting the use of cloth masks in schools," Bhattacharya said unequivocally. "We also have to consider the harms. Many teachers have written to me and told me how difficult it is to teach with masks."

"Last week," the teachers union boss said, "there were two new CDC studies that said they seem to work and that that seemed to be a really big deal. There was a difference between places where there was masking versus not."

Hoeg dug into those studies, saying that "as an epidemiologist, there are very concerning things about those two studies, I'm not saying that there was no necessarily no effective masks, but that I've corresponded with at least one of the head authors, and there are issues that they will need to be adjusted in publication."

"We're not able to learn a lot about masking in those two studies, according to the way that I view it," Hoeg said. She repeated the problems of children not masking properly in terms of the efficacy of masks. "The thing that I see with kids is that they're, they're wearing these masks all day, they take them off to eat lunch, their compliance isn't 100 percent. There are hours and hours in them, with each other in the same room, with a piece of cloth, over their face. And with this being an aerosolized spread virus, I think that's part of the reason that we're not seeing these strong effects of the mask working in the school environment." She also noted the very real problem of kids being told to mask outdoors, and while exercising.

Harris' answer is for kids to be taught how to better wear their masks. What she heard from Hoeg and Bhattacharya led her to say "that makes me believe that we need to make sure that they have appropriate masks. So that should not be the excuse 'because they're not wearing it correctly,' or 'it's too hard,'" Harris said. Children, she believes, should just wear their masks better, and for longer, and be told how to do this.

Bhattacharya said that one big issue facing the US is that "there's very large numbers of people who lost trust in public health. That's why we're seeing this vaccine hesitancy. And a lot of that has come from that public health pushing things on which there's only marginal evidence, incredible amounts of energy spent on that. Whereas the most high yield items, there have been much less energy we built, we've essentially created the situation where a large fraction of the population no longer trust public health." He noted that there has been a "demonizing" of "half the population, creating political divides around this, and putting all our energy on things that are low yield."

For Redlener, that was all justifiable by the fact that "we're in the middle of a crisis," and then he listed numbers of cases among children. "We don't have time to luxuriate," he said. He brought up his kindergarten-aged grandson's experience in school, who was told he wasn't properly masking.

"If you're waiting for me to prove, undeniably and without any issue, that in fact that masks work, they probably do work. And there's a lot of studies that say they work," Redlener said. His view was that "we need to have masks until proven otherwise. Yes, it is a little bit reversed," he said. "But we're in the middle of a deadly crisis. And I think we have to look at the balance of information and the studies... because it's not perfect, is not a reason not to pursue it as policy."

Harris concurred. She said that "based on my analysis that they do reduce risk." While Hartmann, the Westchester dad, said he wanted to get things back to normal for kids in schools, Harris disagreed. "There's going to be a transformed normal when we get on the other side," she said.

Masks "may be a part of our new normal. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that as long it lessens the disease burden," Harris said. She seemed to look forward to the transformation of "how we do a lot of things on the other side of COVID." That included "how we greet one another," she said, concluding that "hugs might be safer than handshakes." Harris brought up social justice concerns as well, as aspects of life that could change irrevocably due to pandemic-inspired changes.

"I think just wanting to go back to the way things were, I think means that we are not willing to learn the lessons of this moment," Harris said.

"I don't think we're gonna go back to exactly the way things were," Bhattacharya said, "but I don't think masks will be part of it."

"I think you have to follow the evidence," he said. "In medicine, we don't do things without good evidence, we don't assume that we're going to do it, it's going to be fine until proven otherwise. We do things only once we have good evidence… The fact that we're in a crisis is not an excuse to skip that step, because it tends to cause harm."

"I think that we have to remember there are costs for this, harms to this, it's not just a trivial thing," Bhattacharya said.


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