Carl Heneghan and Tom Jefferson

Masks in schools: how convincing is the government’s evidence?


Why has the government changed its mind and asked children to wear masks in school? When Plan B was announced last month, there was no requirement. But that has changed.

Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, was asked why on Monday. He replied thatwe conducted a small observational study with 123 schools who had followed mask-wearing in classrooms before and saw that they made a difference’. He suggested it was quite a significant study. ‘If you just think it through, with a respiratory disease that is aerosol-transmitted, if you are asymptomatic but wearing a mask, you’re much, much less likely to infect other people.’

The government has now published an ‘Evidence Summary’ for the use of face coverings in education settings. The study compared schools where pupils wore masks with those that did not, and found a difference in Covid absences: of just 0.6 percentage points. Even the official report accepts that this is not a statistically significant difference.

As practitioners of evidence-based medicine, we are used to assessing such research — and asking not just about the conclusions but about the quality of the study. If you’re making a huge policy change — like ordering secondary school kids to mask up — then you really ought to have strong evidence. Does it exist this time?

The problems face masks pose for children

The Evidence Summary from the Department for Education (DfE) accepts the harm inflicted by face masks in class. It cites research showing that:

  • ‘80 per cent of pupils reported that wearing a face covering made it difficult to communicate, and more than half (55 per cent) felt wearing one made learning more difficult’
  • ‘Face coverings may have physical side effects and impair face identification, verbal and non-verbal communication between teacher and learner.’
  • ‘Almost all secondary leaders and teachers (94 per cent) thought that wearing face coverings has made communication between teachers and students more difficult, with 59 per cent saying it has made it a lot more difficult.

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