Several states across the nation are announcing the end of mask mandates for most public places. But in some states, the debate continues over the need for masks in schools.

Downstate Illinois Republican lawmakers earlier this month criticized Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s decision to exclude schools from his plan to end indoor mask mandates for most public places by the end of the month. 

GOP state Rep. Blaine Wilhour of downstate Beecher City joined state Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia, who is running for governor, and state Rep. Adam Niemerg of Dietrich for a news conference in mid-February in which they called on Pritzker to drop mask mandates in public schools. 

“For the last year at least, I contend two years, the observed science, scores of studies, real world observations have told us there is absolutely no observed or clinical data that indicates any benefit whatsoever to masking K-12 students in schools,” Wilhour said.

The claim follows a downstate judge’s recent order that said Pritzker’s school mask requirements and other restrictions went too far. Pritkzer’s appeal of the ruling was dismissed Thursday by an Illinois appellate court.

We decided to investigate Wilhour’s claim that “there is absolutely no observed or clinical data that indicates any benefit whatsoever to masking K-12 students in schools.”

CDC reports include observational studies 

Asked for evidence underpinning his claim, Wilhour provided various links to studies and articles and said there are over 150 studies that have found no benefit of masks in schools.

“Studies have never found school related transmission to be a significant factor in community spread,” Wilhour said in an email.

One link Wilhour sent us was for a May 2021 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states, “To date, there have been no U.S. studies comparing COVID-19 incidence in schools that varied in implementing recommended prevention strategies, including mask requirements and ventilation improvements.”

But in that same report, the CDC also summarized a 2020 study conducted in K-5 Georgia schools showing the incidence of COVID-19 was 37% lower in schools with mask requirements for teachers and staff.

In the most recently updated version of the “Science Brief: Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in K-12 Schools and Early Care and Education Programs” the agency concluded: “When a combination of effective prevention strategies is implemented and strictly adhered to in the K-12 in-person learning environment, the risk of transmission in the school setting appears to be lower than or equivalent to the transmission risk in other community settings.”

The CDC brief included observations conducted in cities throughout the U.S., including Chicago. For instance, a study of private schools’ masking policies and limited class sizes found minimal in-school transmission, according to the CDC.

Additional CDC mask studies demonstrating the observed benefit of masks include:

  • A 2020 study of 11 North Carolina school districts where students practiced social distancing and wore masks for at least nine weeks in the fall semester reported minimal school-related transmission.

  • A Utah study of elementary schools implementing multiple prevention strategies, including wearing masks, found low transmission from December 2020 through January 2021.

  • An Arizona study in two counties during the delta variant surge found outbreaks were three and a half times more likely in schools without mask mandates.

The CDC did not respond to requests for comment.

Clinical vs. Observational Data

There is plenty of observational evidence that masks work, so we turned to Wilhour’s assertion about a lack of clinical data.

One epidemiology expert we talked to said such an assertion ignores the fact that clinical trials exposing unprotected children to COVID-19 would be patently wrong. A clinical trial would involve exposing a control group of unprotected children to the deadly virus, the expert said.

“We will not get clinical trials on this because it is unethical to randomize kids to not use masks given overwhelming evidence of the risks based on observational studies,” said Dr. Mercedes Carnethon of Northwestern University.

She said public health decisions are often made without clinical trials for the same reasons.

“There are also no clinical data to support the use of seatbelts in cars to reduce automobile fatalities,” Carnethon said. “Those decisions and policies are based on observational data collected over years to show that the rates of death are lower for passengers who wear seatbelts.”

Our ruling

Wilhour said there is absolutely no observed or clinical data that indicates any benefit whatsoever to masking K-12 students in schools.

Clinical studies cannot be conducted on this issue because of the risk they would pose to unprotected children, but observational data shows masks are beneficial in reducing transmissions in schools.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.

Analisa Trofimuk was a reporter at the Illinois Answers Project (previously known as the Better Government Association) from 2021 to 2022.