Dallas ISD’s Mask Mandate Is Illegal and Ineffective

Dallas ISD Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa (on the left) and Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall (on the right) welcoming kids back to school (Photo by Brandon Wade). 

On Monday, the news broke that Dallas ISD, in defiance of Governor Abbott’s executive order, was requiring all of its students, faculty, and staff to wear masks. The rationale for this policy was the recent alarming rise in COVID cases and hospitalizations, largely spurred by the new delta variant. Of course, we all want to protect our children and teachers, and at first glance requiring them all to wear masks seems a reasonable way to accomplish this. But while I am sympathetic to the pleas of those who want to protect us from the undeniable danger of the delta variant, this mask mandate is not the right way to go about it. 

First, the order is likely illegal due to Governor Abbott’s executive order that banned mask mandates by government bodies, including school districts. The upshot of this is that the Dallas ISD’s mandate will likely not be able to stand legal challenges. Even if the mandate does, the way in which it flouts the law should be sufficient grounds to disqualify it from the range of acceptable policy options. For the rule of law to be maintained, government officials must faithfully follow the clear wording and intent of all the laws which apply to the discharge of their duties, whether or not they personally disagree with the law. The decision-makers of Dallas ISD might legitimately think that Abbott’s executive order was bad policy and that the decision for whether to require masks should have been left in local hands; but this is a matter for the governor, the courts, and, ultimately, Texas voters, who will have ample opportunity to express dissatisfaction with the order in the upcoming gubernatorial election.   

Besides the illegality of the mandate, it is also bad policy. In the U.S., everyone over the age of 12 is eligible for a COVID vaccination, which has so far proven effective against the delta variant. According to CDC data, the chances of someone who is vaccinated dying from COVID are 0.0005%. That is, if you had a random selection of 200,000 fully vaccinated people, you would expect only one of them to die from COVID. Parents take far greater risks driving their children to school. So, for all high-schoolers, faculty, staff, and even for most middle-schoolers, a mask mandate merely serves to mitigate an already astronomically low risk. As for those 12 and under, the virus poses little risk to them. For instance, a recent report in Nature on the pandemic in England found that the pandemic there had killed a mere 25 children, and the U.S. appears to have a similar death rate.  

But isn’t the delta variant more dangerous to children? After all, a higher percentage of those who have been hospitalized with the delta variant have been children, in comparison to the first few waves of the pandemic. This is true, but the difference is only about 5%, and this is more than explained by the fact that adults are now comparatively safer because of the vaccine. Thus, we naturally expect children to make up a slightly higher percentage of hospitalizations, even as the delta variant fails to be particularly dangerous to them. While it would be ideal for the FDA to stop dragging its feet and approve the vaccine for children five to twelve, this step is not necessary for a safe and mask-less re-opening of schools.  

As for the effectiveness of the mask mandate, it will not only fail to protect Dallas children, but it will actively harm them. A survey in Germany found that over half of 18,000 parents surveyed reported negative effects of the masks on their children, including headaches, increased difficulty to concentrate, and increased social dissatisfaction in school. Meanwhile, the CDC recommends that cloth masks be washed daily to prevent them from becoming breeding grounds for bacteria and fungi, which can pose much more serious risks to children than COVID. I’m willing to bet that few to none of these parents, let alone their children, actually follow these guidelines. Finally, masks can inhibit learning by preventing young children from seeing the facial expressions of their peers and teachers alike. In 2018, a paper in Frontiers of Psychology found that children rely on facial expressions to boost their emotions learning, meaning that requiring face masks could have a marginal stunting effect on the emotional development of some children. Now, of course, most children will be perfectly fine, albeit a little put out, if they have to wear masks in school, but the negative effects of the policy will still outweigh any of its dubious benefits.  

In the darkest days of the pandemic, masks were an invaluable tool that helped us buy enough time to develop and distribute a vaccine. That vaccine is now here, and with it the end of a need for widespread mask mandates. Anyone who wants to still wear a mask for their own peace of mind is welcome to do so, but the time for policies such as Dallas ISD’s illegal mask mandate has come and gone.  

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