National Institutes of Health (NIH) director Francis Collins on Tuesday indicated that the push to make America’s youngest students wear masks at school is more due to concerns over potential school closures, rather than based on data of COVID-19’s impact on children’s health.
Collins weighed in on the debate over mask requirements in American schools during an interview with “The Hugh Hewitt Show.” When asked by host Hugh Hewitt about recent federal recommendations that children in kindergarten through 3rd grade should wear masks, Collins said that although young children getting COVID-19 is rare, unmasked students could cause COVID-19 outbreaks at schools, forcing their peers to return to remote learning.
“It is still pretty rare, but it is not zero, and we now have more than 400 kids that have died of this. So we have to think about that,” he said.
“If they’re unmasked in the classroom, you know what’s going to happen. There’s going to be an outbreak,” he continued. “And then what happens? The kids go back home again. That’s a bad outcome. So even if you’re not worried about their personal health, if you’re worried about the fact that we want them to stay in school, the masks may be an important way to achieve that.”
Hewitt, who was unimpressed with Collins’s use of the word “may,” notes that K–3 students are vulnerable to speech development problems that affect the rest of their lives if they can’t see people’s full faces. He then moved to ask whether there is data showing that kids in grade K-3 “are at greater risk of hospitalization or illness of serious sort from taking their mask off.”
“I wish we had that data,” Collins replied. “But Hugh, I don’t think you’re hearing me. It’s not just about that.”
“You’re worried about what goes on. But you just said there’s no data,” said Hewitt. “So you guys are guessing.”
Collins explained that the health officials are not guessing, once again pointing to recent reports about school districts closing classrooms because of COVID-19 cases. Hewitt, however, argued that school districts are overreacting to those cases since there is no data showing that the risk of suffering from severe COVID-19 symptoms outweighs that of developing speech deficits.
“You tell me, they closed because of the number of positive tests,” Hewitt said. “But was there real harm? Because if it’s the flu or a common cold in children, that was a bad decision and a panicky one.”
“I think we’ve created a concern about panic with outbreaks among children when the children do not demonstrate any significant [symptoms],” he added. “I don’t think you have any data showing that there’s a significant, greater risk of being sent home than lifelong learning deficits.”
“I don’t think we have the data on either side of it, Hugh,” replied Collins. “I think right now, we’re all trying to do the best we can.”
In its latest version of school reopening guidelines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends “universal indoor masking” by students age 2 and older, staff, teachers, and visitors to K–12 schools, regardless of their vaccination status, citing the “circulating and highly contagious Delta variant.”
“The CDC really hates to have to make recommendations based on anecdotes,” Collins said. “But sometimes it’s what you’ve got at the time.”
By GQ Pan