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A teacher fixes a student's mask on their first day back to in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. Associated Press. A teacher fixes a student's mask on their first day back to in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. Associated Press.

A teacher fixes a student's mask on their first day back to in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. Associated Press.

By D.L. Davis January 19, 2022

Lawmaker's claim that mask mandates harm early childhood development falls short of scientific proof

If Your Time is short

  • Public health officials pointed out the article cited as support was “not a study but an opinion paper.”

  • According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, limited available data indicates “no clear evidence that masking impairs emotional or language development in children.”

As the omicron variant of COVID-19 is surging across the United States, some states and municipalities are returning to mask mandates. In Milwaukee, the Common Council on Jan. 18, 2022, approved a change to the city's existing mask ordinance to require masks for anyone at least 3 years old in buildings open to the public. 

All of that has led to a new round of pushback from critics.

That could be seen in the response to a Nov. 29, 2021 announcement by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of a new universal masking policy for federally-funded Head Start education centers. That policy applies to everyone above the age of 2, including all staff, volunteers and contractors.

Two Republican lawmakers – U.S. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain of Michigan – introduced a bill to bar such a requirement, which also faces a host of legal challenges across the country.

U.S. Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, R-Wisconsin, had this to say in a Dec. 21, 2021 Twitter post: "Mask mandates on children lead to learning loss that harms early childhood development." 

Most of the concern about learning loss has been centered on virtual learning, instead of in-person classes.

Is Fitzgerald right about mask mandates?

Study vs. opinion piece

When asked for supporting information, Fitzgerald’s office pointed us to a Dec. 21, 2021 letter crafted by McClain and sent to Dr. Bernadine Futrell, director of the Office of Head Start. Fitzgerald was among those who signed the letter, and he included a link to it in his tweet.

"We have grave concerns that your (Head Start Program Performance Standards) rule requiring universal masking for all individuals two years of age and older and universal masking and vaccinations for staff, certain contractors, and volunteers will further exacerbate the ongoing challenges posed by the pandemic," the letter reads, in part. 

The letter cited an Aug. 11, 2020 article that can be found online via the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) that states how important "facial recognition and expressions are for learning among young children." 

Online sources describe NLM, operated by the National Institutes of Health, as the world’s largest medical library. The article in question was written by Manfred Spitzer, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Ulm in Germany. 

The article notes that "covering the lower half of the face reduces the ability to communicate, interpret, and mimic the expressions of those with whom we interact."

It goes on to say: "positive emotions become less recognizable, and negative emotions are amplified. Emotional mimicry, contagion, and emotionality in general are reduced and (thereby) bonding between teachers and learners, group cohesion, and learning – of which emotions are a major driver. The benefits and burdens of face masks in schools should be seriously considered and made obvious and clear to teachers and students." 

But the Spitzer article is not based on scientific study. In fact, an ethical statement at the end of the piece notes that "no data was collected for this opinion paper."

Response from public health officials

In a Dec. 6, 2021 Science brief, The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that limited available data indicates "no clear evidence that masking impairs emotional or language development in children."

"A study of 2-year-old children concluded that they were able to recognize familiar words presented without a mask and when hearing words through opaque masks," according to the brief. "Among children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), interventions including positive reinforcement and coaching caregivers to teach mask wearing have improved participants’ ability to wear a face mask. These findings suggest that even children who may have difficulty wearing a mask can do so effectively through targeted interventions." 
 

When asked about the issue, Wisconsin Department of Health Services communications specialist Jennifer Miller emphasized that the article referenced in Fitzgerald’s tweet "is not a study, but an opinion paper published in August 2020, before a handful of actual studies on this topic were published." 

"The Wisconsin Department of Health Services believes masks are one of the tools to effectively help stop the spread of COVID-19, but we also recognize that there may be reasons certain groups of people may find it difficult to wear a mask, including some children 2 years and older and people of any age with certain disabilities." Miller said in an email.

With regard to the potential impact of masks on language and emotional development, Miller reiterated the CDC position that "available data indicate no clear evidence that masking impairs emotional or language development in children." 

Our ruling

Fitzgerald claimed that "mask mandates on children lead to learning loss that harms early childhood development." 

But the article he and his colleagues cited is an opinion piece, not based on a study. In addition, it came out before other formal studies were completed that showed a different view. 

The CDC says limited available data indicates "no clear evidence that masking impairs emotional or language development in children."

For a statement that contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, our rating is Mostly False.

 

 

 

Our Sources

U.S. Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, Twitter, Dec. 21, 2021

U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain, Twitter, Dec. 21, 2021

Email, Kelli Liegel,  Press Secretary Congressman Scott Fitzgerald, Jan. 8, 2022. 

Email, Jade Fulce, Public Affairs Specialist, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Jan. 11, 2022.

Email, Jennifer Miller, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Jan. 11, 2022

News release, "McClain, Thune Introduce Bicameral Legislation to Protect Toddlers from Federal Mandates," U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain, Dec. 16, 2021

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Milwaukee Common Council approves pared-down mask mandate," Jan. 18, 2022

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Tony Evers issues a statewide mandate to wear masks indoors through the end of September," July 30, 2020

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Wisconsin Supreme Court rules mask mandate invalid, scales back governor's ability to issue health orders," March 31, 2021

WPR, "Local Governments Lift Mask Mandates Following CDC Guidance As COVID-19 Cases Trend Downward," May 14, 2021 

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Milwaukee Common Council committee recommends bringing back mask mandate but key questions are unresolved," Jan. 7, 2022.

U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health  "Masked education? The benefits and burdens of wearing face masks in schools during the current Corona pandemic," Aug. 11, 2020.

Manfred Spitzer

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services "New Requirement for Head Start Staff Vaccination and Universal Masking,"  Nov. 29, 2021.

New York Post "Court halts COVID mask, vax mandates for Texas Head Start programs," Jan. 1, 2022 

The Hill, "Federal judge blocks mask and vaccine mandates for Texas Head Start program," Dec. 31, 2021.

Montana Department of Justice, "Federal Judge Grants AG Knudsen’s Request for Injunction Against Head Start Vaccine and Toddler Mask Mandate," Jan. 3, 2022

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF LOUISIANA MONROE DIVISION "Memorandum Order,"

WebMD "Pfizer COVID Vaccine for Younger Children Hits Snag," Dec. 17, 2021

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "Pediatric Data"

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Operating Early Care and Education/Child Care Programs , Nov. 10, 2021

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Science Brief: Community Use of Masks to Control the Spread of SARS-CoV-2 | CDC, Dec. 6, 2021.
 

Associated Press "Hospitalizations skyrocket in kids too young for COVID shots," Jan. 7, 2022.

The Hill "CDC reports record number of child COVID-19 hospitalizations," Jan. 7, 2022
 

National Institutes of Health "National Library of Medicine

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Lawmaker's claim that mask mandates harm early childhood development falls short of scientific proof

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