A U.K. Department for Education report casts doubt on the evidence cited to support the government’s recent school mask mandate.
Schools in England did not recommend that students wear face masks in the fall, however on Sunday the government decided to require face masks for all students ages eleven and up until January 26, in light of the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid. Regarding younger children, the U.K.’s current guidelines state that “children of primary school age and early years children should not be advised to wear face coverings.”
However, a review used by ministers to help decide whether to reinstate masking for students ages eleven and up admitted some uncertainty regarding the efficacy of masks in schools. The review was first reported by the BBC.
“Whilst not conclusive, there are now a number of scientific studies which consider the association between COVID-19 and the use of face coverings specifically in education settings,” the report states.
A government study of 123 secondary schools in England aimed to research the utility of face masks in secondary schools from the first through third week of October.
The study found that a group of secondary schools that required face masks saw Covid-related absences fall from 5.3 percent to 3 percent in the first three weeks of October, while schools that did not require masks saw the Covid absence rate drop from 5.3 percent to 3.6 percent over the same period. However, the review noted that “there is a level of statistical uncertainty around the result,” and that the difference in reduction could be due to chance.
In the U.S., attempts to determine the efficacy of masking in schools have been complicated by the higher vaccination rates in counties with school mask mandates.
The review also notes that face masks “can reduce the risk of transmission when people are in close proximity or small spaces even for short durations of time,” although “they cannot compensate for poor ventilation.”
While Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended the efficacy of face masks, he told reporters that the school requirement would not be in place for long.
“There’s an increasing body of scientific support for the idea that face masks can contain transmission,” Johnson told reporters on Monday. “I don’t like the idea of having face masks in the classroom any more than anybody else does, but we won’t keep them on a day more than is necessary.”