CDC's School Mask Guidelines Fuel a Culture War That Europe, WHO Avoided

The use of face masks for children as a means to combat the spread of COVID-19 has rapidly become a major point of contention and added fuel to the fire of the long-running U.S. culture war.

The issue of mask-wearing has been at the center of controversial school board meetings across the country, with arguments and objections hitting headlines and footage sometimes going viral on social media.

Strict advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) seems to have stoked that culture war. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Europe's top infectious diseases agency have largely avoided controversy by issuing guidelines that differ significantly from the CDC.

Current CDC advice "recommends universal indoor masking for all students (age two years and older), teachers, staff, and visitors to K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status."

The CDC explains on its website that this advice is due to "the highly transmissible nature" of the Delta variant and "the extent of mixing of vaccinated and unvaccinated people in schools."

However, in advising children from two years and above to wear masks in schools, the CDC has become something of an outlier. Neither the WHO nor the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) make that recommendation.

There are also questions about how the CDC decided the current advice, with a group of experts telling The Atlantic that an Arizona study cited by the CDC to support that advice should be excluded from consideration.

The study found that schools without mask mandates had transmission rates 3.5 times higher than schools with mask mandates and CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky cited the study on CBS News on September 26.

One of those experts, Noah Haber, told the magazine the study was "so unreliable that it probably should not have been entered into the public discourse."

The Arizona study is not the only one the CDC has touted but its prevalence in the agency's public statements has become a cause of concern. Other world agencies have not followed the CDC's lead.

The WHO's View

The WHO recommends against masking children under the age of 5 years.

"In general, children aged 5 years and under should not be required to wear masks," the WHO says on its website. "This advice is based on the safety and overall interest of the child and the capacity to appropriately use a mask with minimal assistance.

"There may be local requirements for children aged 5 years and under to wear masks, or specific needs in some settings, such as being physically close to someone who is ill. In these circumstances, if the child wears a mask, a parent or other guardian should be within direct line of sight to supervise the safe use of the mask."

When it comes to masks for children aged 6 to 11, WHO and UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund) advise that a number of factors should be considered, including "whether there is widespread transmission in the area where the child resides" and the "ability of the child to safely and appropriately use a mask."

The WHO also suggests that the mask's impact on the child's "learning and psychosocial development" should be taken into consideration in consultation with teachers, parents, caregivers and medical providers.

The European View

Similarly, the ECDC says: "In primary schools, the use of face masks is recommended for teachers and other adults when physical distancing cannot be guaranteed, but it is not recommended for students."

The ECDC's website says that children under 12 "may have a lower tolerance to wearing masks for extended periods of time, and may fail to wear them properly" but the agency does recommend masks for children over 12 "living in areas with community transmission."

The CDC's more expansive advice on child mask-wearing is bringing the agency's policies into conflict with parents and others who oppose younger children being required to wear masks and could potentially have political implications.

Opposition to Masks

School districts seeking to follow current CDC advice and implement mask-wearing for all children are likely to face local opposition, particularly from conservatives and emerging parents' groups. This has already been evident at school board meetings across the U.S.

One group that opposes mask mandates in schools is Moms for Liberty, a movement of conservative parents who are hoping to make an impact in the 2022 midterm elections.

One of the group's founders, Tiffany Justice, told CNN this week that she does not believe masks offer protection against the spread of COVID-19, while co-founder Tina Descovich said that some masks do provide some protection, citing N95 masks.

Moms for Liberty say they now have 167 chapters across 30 states consisting of 70,000 members and they are focusing on the upcoming midterm elections. Their group is just one example of a widespread conflict that's beginning to inform politics at a national level.

Masks for children have now become part of an ongoing aspect of the culture wars focused on schools, along with opposition to vaccine mandates and efforts to prevent the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

While COVID-19 measures have proven controversial in Europe and led to large and sometimes violent protests, ECDC and WHO advice on children's mask-wearing takes a more cautious approach, with the WHO in particular stressing the role of parents.

The CDC appears to be contributing to an already fraught debate with advice that goes much further than its international counterparts, while the doubts surrounding the science of that advice are likely to undermine the agency further.

Newsweek has asked the CDC for comment.

A First Grader Wears a Mask
Teacher Elizabeth DeSantis, wearing a mask and face shield, listens as a first grader reads during class at Stark Elementary School on September 16, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. The CDC has issued much stricter advice on masks for children than the WHO or its European counterpart. John Moore/Getty Images