An Outdated Website, Atlantic Post, and Instagram Story: How the CDC Botched Overhauling Its Mask Guidelines for Preschoolers

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Update

In early March, a pandemic celebrity best known for advocating that schools should move toward pre-COVID normalcy brandished his weapon of choice, telling The Atlantic that lifting mask mandates for all but the youngest students is “incredibly irrational”.

Emily Oster explained what she, and many others, understood to be the current situation in her opening paragraph: “Although the CDC recently decided to relax COVID guidelines, it continues to recommend universal indoor masking in early childhood education programs for those 2 years and older.”

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The CDC’s coronavirus guidance page for child care providers, last updated Jan. 28, lists a number of “key takeaways,” including that the agency ” recommends universal interior masking in [early childhood education] programs for people aged 2 and over, regardless of their vaccination status.

But in a surprising twist, about a week later, the Brown University economist posted an update on his Instagram story.

“After my article in @theatlantic last week, the CDC emailed me to let me know that they DO NOT RECOMMEND masking toddlers in areas with low or moderate transmission. Toddler masking is recommended to align with everyone,” she wrote. “They’re struggling to get the message across, so maybe this will help them!” »

“I realize this sounds a bit crazy, but I’m telling you this is the email I received from a senior CDC official.”

(Karen Vaites via Twitter)

The federal agency has a yellow banner at the top of its COVID guidance page on child care that says the CDC’s latest recommendations “align precautions for educational settings with those for other community settings.”

“This banner…is meant to replace all of the information below it in the bullet points that say kids should always hide,” Oster said in an Instagram video.

In late February, the CDC made major news by replacing its previous recommendation that all schools require universal masking, stipulating instead that classrooms can now be masked when community COVID rates are low or moderate. , the current virus level in most of the country. .

But with no vaccine available for under-5s, Oster and many others understood that the guidelines only applied to K-12 schools, not child care and pre-K programs. The CDC is “relaxing its recommendations for wearing masks in K-12 indoor environments,” the Los Angeles Times wrote.

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But in fact, the advice was supposed to apply to all levels of education, including those under 5 years old.

In a Thursday email to 74, the CDC confirmed that “recommendations for masks in K-12 schools and early care and education (ECE) programs are consistent with recommendations for other community settings. “.

“Children 2-4 years old are at lower risk of serious illness from COVID-19 and parents of children in ECE programs and ECE staff can make appropriate choices about wearing the masks in school settings based on local requirements and their personal risk levels,” spokeswoman Jade Fulce wrote.

She did not explain why it took the agency several weeks to update its website, but said she would make the information available “as soon as possible”.

For New York mother Daniela Jampel, whose 4-year-old daughter has continued to mask up while her older sister goes to school with her face exposed, the delay is unacceptable.

“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “CDC having trouble updating their website to contact Emily Oster?”

“Their website on this issue should not be left to interpretation. It should be very clear,” said Jampel, one of the early advocates of keep NYC schools open amid remote learning and now a vocal critic of the city’s decision to leave masking in place for preschoolers.

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Oster agreed that the unconventional method of communication underscores the widespread confusion on the issue, but clarified that the CDC had not contacted her to ask her to publicize their policy. On the contrary, they were correcting what they said was inaccurate information in his Atlantic article.

“They weren’t like, ‘Oh, by the way, it would be great if you could share this information with people,'” Oster told 74. “They were just like, ‘Everyone should know this already. ‘ But I think it’s pretty clear looking at… how people have responded that they failed to get it across.

Several parents, mostly in blue states like New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois, responded to Oster’s update saying their childcare provider still needed masks, the professor said.

“I showed this (post) to my provider,” many parents wrote, and in response they were told, “Well, if the website still says masks are mandatory, that’s not our interpretation of what this banner is.”

“There’s a fair amount of people looking to this advice and trying to interpret it and the way it’s currently being spelled out is extremely difficult to interpret clearly,” Oster said.

Emily Oster (Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University)

The confusion extended to The Atlantic itself, which did not immediately update Oster’s original column to reflect clarified CDC guidance after Oster received the agency’s email. In a follow-up interview with The 74, Oster said she was corresponding with her publisher, but because the CDC had made no official announcement on how to interpret the vague website, the outlet decided to do not change his story at that time.

“[The fact-checker] read the banner at the top, but everything below it still said there should be masking,” she said. “It went under the radar.”

However, after this story was first published and The 74 sought comment from The Atlantic, Oster’s article was updated Thursday evening to reflect the disconnect in CDC guidelines between the banner and the information below.

Many early childhood education providers nationwide continue to require universal masking for children ages 2-4.

Head Start, a federal school readiness program that serves more than 800,000 children from low-income families each year, continues to require children 2 and older to wear face masks indoors, though in a Jan. 1 ruling, a U.S. district judge placed an injunction on the program’s rule in 24, mostly Republican, states. In the remaining 26 states, even those that have long since lifted their school mask mandates, participating toddlers are still required to cover up.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams cited hospitalization data when he announced earlier this month that the nation’s largest school district was lifting its K-12 mask mandate but keeping the rule for children. from 2 to 4 years old.

“When you look at the under-5s, they were more likely to be hospitalized,” Adams said. “People wanted to say, ‘Let’s raise it all the way up,’ but that’s not what the science was showing us.”

Masking in child care centers is associated with a significant drop in program closures due to virus outbreaks, according to a recent study by doctors at Yale University. But the data was collected in the early months of the pandemic before vaccines were made available to staff.

And while federal data shows that hospitalizations of children under 5 rose during the Omicron surge, an outsized share of that increase was driven by newborns under 6 months, to whom guidelines masking do not apply anyway.

Meanwhile, COVID cases in Europe are rising sharply, fueled by a more transmissible Omicron subvariant. Even as infections continue to fall in the United States, many experts are warning that increases across the pond could herald a wave coming to America.

(Centres for Disaster Control and Prevention)

Jampel, despite being frustrated by the CDC’s haphazard rollout of its guidance for toddlers, doubts that greater clarity will impact the rules affecting his family.

“New York City schools have done a lot of things that go far beyond what the CDC recommends,” she said. “I’m not convinced it’s the CDC that’s holding us back, and I’m not convinced that a CDC change will mean our political leaders will take notice and change their policies.”

Neither the Department of Education nor the Department of Health immediately responded to requests for comment.

Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Research Institute for Early Education, said the two key questions on the issue are “What are the health benefits of masking for young children?” and “What are the implications for development? »

“The problem with trying to be an expert on this issue is that there is very little scientific data on which to base any conclusions,” he told The 74 in an email. “In terms of health benefits, the known risks of infection for young children are quite low, but this is a new virus with unknown long-term risks.”

“All of this leads me to believe,” he continued, “that masks for young children may be prudent when there is a high rate of community transmission” – a finding that puts him in line with the CDC guidelines now clarified.

But with all of the CDC’s communication issues along the way, Oster fears this could affect public trust in the agency, which has been repeatedly shaken during the two-year pandemic.

“It erodes trust,” she said. “If people try to trust the CDC, they try to listen to them, when the message is confusing in that way, or incomplete in that way, it makes people less likely to pay attention to the CDC.”

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