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Politifact Swings and Misses at DeSantis on Student Masks

Then-Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis speaks at a rally in Orlando, Fla., November 5, 2018. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

One of the most disturbing aspects of our pandemic response is how quickly a scientific claim with a weak evidence base can morph into an Official Truth. It’s even more disturbing that journalists — supposedly people charged with questioning authority — have been aggressive enforcers of the party line. They have elevated “but the CDC says . . .” into a mic-dropping argument.

Take the media’s reaction to Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s executive order that allows students to opt out of wearing masks. Part of the order declares, “Forcing students to wear masks lacks a well-grounded scientific justification.” That statement is true. There have been no formal trials comparing student health outcomes with and without mask mandates, and the best non-experimental study (led by Emily Oster at Brown) finds no significant difference in viral spread. Meanwhile, there seems to be little scientific interest at all in whether masks have downsides related to children’s learning and socialization. So of course there is not a “well-grounded scientific justification” for student masking. DeSantis is correct.

Nevertheless, the imperative of school mask mandates has become one of those Official Truths that the media feel obligated to support. So Politifact, working with Kaiser Health News, has declared DeSantis’s statement “false.” The justification for this rating is not the least bit convincing, but in that sense it’s instructive — some reporters will do anything to defend the edicts of the CDC.

The “fact check” starts by dismissing the Oster study, which was cited in DeSantis’s order. To reiterate, her paper finds no significant correlation between mask mandates and COVID cases in Florida schools. However, Politifact says that because the paper is not definitive — a formal experiment could theoretically produce different results — the paper somehow fails to support DeSantis’s claim that student masking “lacks a well-grounded scientific justification.” On the contrary, it remains entirely consistent with that claim. Does Politifact believe that the burden of proof falls on opponents of school masking?

Next, Politifact provides links to several articles. It heavily implies, without explicitly saying so, that these articles demonstrate the effectiveness of student masking. They don’t. Some suggest teacher masking could be effective, others are just statements without data or analysis, and one is not about masks at all. This catalogue of non-evidence even includes a bit of guesswork from an interviewee: “Mechanistically, it is a little hard to believe masking would not have some effect.” That quote is emblematic of Politifact’s “well-grounded scientific justification” for student masking.

In any case, whether student masking reduces viral spread is only a small part of the equation. Any “well-grounded scientific justification” for student masks would need to consider not just spread, but actual health outcomes. Remember, the risk of COVID to children has been and remains small, and school staff have now had the opportunity to be vaccinated. In addition, researchers would need to evaluate the potential negative impact of masks on learning and socialization, which is an issue that Politifact does not even mention. Frankly, its “fact check” is so devoid of evidence that it strengthens my conviction that students should not wear masks.

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