Prekindergarten students play together at the Arctic snow station in their classroom Tuesday at Vine Street School. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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“We need to start talking about off-ramps for disease mitigation strategies in school environments, especially masking.”

A few weeks ago, a friend wrote this to me, quietly encouraging me to use my column to discuss the issue of masks in school. Specifically, this person felt that it was time to push for local school boards to reconsider their mask mandates and make mask-wearing optional for children.

What made the request unusual was that it came from a parent deeply involved in educational policy, a registered Democrat, and someone who strongly supported universal masking in schools at the beginning of the current school year.

My friend is not alone. In many conversations with left-leaning folks recently, including several school board members, I have noticed a decided shift in their attitudes away from mandatory masking, and toward a return to “normal.” This attitudinal shift is beginning to be reflected in national left-wing circles as well. Three weeks ago, for instance, the Atlantic, a left-leaning magazine, published a piece by infectious disease expert Margery Smelkinson and two colleagues making the case against mask use in school.

Their argument? First, that the three major studies that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relied on to justify ongoing mask-wearing are either inconclusive or deeply flawed and unreliable.

“Other studies — not randomized trials — have looked at the effects of masks in schools,” they wrote, “and their results do not support pervasive, endless masking at school. A study from Brown University […] found no correlation between student cases and mask mandates, but did see decreased cases associated with teacher vaccination.”

The reason why the efficacy of mask-wearing among children is so ambiguous is multi-faceted but is likely due to poor “compliance” with proper mask-wearing. As a father of four kids, I can attest to the virtual impossibility of getting them to wear masks properly all day, every day, no matter how hard we and the teachers try.

The unconvincing evidence of efficacy and observations of student non-compliance are two of the reasons why several countries, including Nordic countries like Sweden, Norway and Denmark, as well as others like the United Kingdom, have intentionally refused to institute mask mandates for kids.

The World Health Organization itself is skeptical of mask-wearing for children up to the age of 11, because of the “potential impact of wearing a mask on learning and psychosocial development.”

Again, this is a suspicion that can be confirmed by virtually every parent in Maine today. I have a freshman in high school, a first-grader and a kindergartener, and despite my wife being an elementary school teacher, I have noticed learning challenges, delays in social development, and disturbingly negative attitudes about school in each of them. And in each of their cases, frustration with the hot, sweaty masks they are forced to wear has left them all in tears, particularly my 5-year-old daughter.

Is any of this justified any longer?

The answer to that question basically boils down to a simple cost and benefit analysis. If the benefit of continuing these policies outweighs the cost, then the policy is justified. If the cost is more than whatever limited benefit we get, the policy must end.

I admit that I am unusual among my conservative friends. Despite my opposition to blanket mask mandates, I believe that masks, when worn properly are at least somewhat helpful in stopping the spread of the virus.

But as we evaluate costs and benefits, we have to ask what we think the risk to our children truly is.

As of last week, there have been 940 COVID-related deaths in the United States among children up to 18 years old, according to CDC data. That is 940 too many, obviously, but it is among a population of well over 70 million children, and that figure makes no account for parallel health challenges (cancer or other co-morbidities that left a child vulnerable), and includes the entire pandemic, including the time before vaccines were available.

Comparatively, in 2020 alone there were 8,567 accidental deaths in the same age group, 3,583 homicide deaths, and 2,817 suicides. There were even 815 deaths due to heart disease in kids.

Point being, the risk to your child from COVID is and always has been extraordinarily low. Now that we have vaccines available for most children and the Omicron variant appears much less deadly, the remarkably low risk to kids is now virtually insignificant.

Given that fact, masks are not necessary in kids, and any good that they may do is far outweighed by the harm we continue to do to their social, emotional and educational development.

Thus my friend — and so many concerned parents of all parties like him — are right to be thinking about how to untangle ourselves from this mess. It is time to take the off-ramp.

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...