This commentary is by Stan Greer, senior research associate for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research.
Over the past two years, medical specialists and non-specialists alike have learned a great deal about how to respond effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic without causing unnecessary and unwarranted collateral damage.
Some COVID-19 countermeasures that long enjoyed the backing of federal, state and local politicians and their appointees appear now to do more harm than good. Mandatory masks for schoolchildren and teachers and other employees of K-12 schools are a case in point.
A December 2021 analysis of more than 150 studies on masking by Dr. Paul Alexander, an epidemiologist and former consultant to the World Health Organization, concluded that “surgical and cloth masks, used as they currently are being used (without other forms of PPE protection) have no impact on controlling the transmission” of COVID-19.
Moreover, the health risk to school-aged children from COVID-19 is minimal. It has a “lower annual mortality risk to children than motor vehicle accidents, influenza, and … suicide.” Unvaccinated children infected with COVID, including those with preexisting conditions as well as those without them, have less than a 1 in 10,000 chance of going to an intensive care unit.
And there is “little evidence that masking students protects others.” A study conducted in Sweden, where schools were kept open without mask mandates, found that country’s teachers “had no increased risk of severe COVID-19 infection as compared to other occupations.”
Faced with ever-mounting evidence that mask mandates are not needed to protect children, their families, or education professionals from COVID-19, along with growing concerns among pediatricians and other doctors that prolonged mask wearing by children may lead to “robotic and emotionless interactions, anxiety and depression,” late last month even relentlessly pro-mandate Rochelle Walensky changed her tune.
On Feb. 25, just 10 days after telling a U.S. House panel the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had “no plans to change their recommendation that all U.S. schools require students to wear masks,” President Joe Biden’s handpicked CDC director issued revised guidance for schools, stating that masks should only be mandated when COVID cases and hospitalizations are high. Effectively, this CDC shift means “most U.S. schools now have the agency’s OK to go without [mandatory] masks.”
In the weeks since the CDC adopted its current stance opposing the forcible masking of schoolchildren with relatively few exceptions, Walensky has been widely mocked for “shifting with the … political winds.” But the fact is, her contortions are nothing compared to those of teacher union bosses who, as long as the CDC’s “guidance” was to their liking, insisted that education officials must submit to it, or else.
Take, for example, Jesse Sharkey, the lame-duck president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU/AFT/AFL-CIO). As he knows full well, the Windy City is not an area “at high risk of serious illness or strained health-care resources.” Consequently, according to the CDC, there is no justifiable reason to mask all the children in Chicago’s schools.
In a March 4 press statement responding to reports that Chicago officials were considering lifting their city’s school mask mandate to comply with current CDC guidance, Sharkey made no mention of that guidance. Instead, he suggested, quite madly, that the only way schools can “safely” make masks optional is by first getting permission from CTU officials to do so. Sharkey went on to make it clear that he is not really opposed to making masks voluntary. It’s just that he and other CTU bosses want to make sure taxpayers pay a steep price before they agree to it.
On March 7, the CTU hierarchy filed a grievance with the Illinois Labor Relations Board to block Chicago schools from implementing their plan, announced that day, to make masks voluntary starting March 14 unless the district first agrees to bargain over a laundry list of costly new union-boss demands.
With this outrageous power and money grab, Sharkey and his cohorts are illustrating once again why lawmakers in Illinois and more than 30 other states never should have handed monopoly-bargaining privileges over teachers’ and other public servants’ pay, benefits, and work rules to union officials in the first place.