Yeah, It’s Randroids

At the end of last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new guidance on wearing masks, significantly easing recommendations for most of the country, including in schools. In response to the CDC’s new rules, many blue states that still mandated masks in schools announced they would end the requirement, including New York, California, Oregon, and Washington. Now, the only state not planning to end its school mask mandate by mid-march is Hawaii.

The development may have been confusing for parents of schoolchildren, since the American Academy of Pediatrics and the president of the American Medical Association continue to recommend masking in schools — and a week before the CDC’s announcement, the agency’s director had said the CDC had no immediate plans to update its guidance. Polls have shown strong support for school mask mandates, and in January, teachers and students all over the country led demonstrations calling for even stronger COVID safety protocols. Strong opinions on the issue and conflicting directives put further pressure on the country’s already overwhelmed teaching staff. A recent survey of U.S. teachers found that more than half were on the brink of leaving their jobs over pandemic stress.

Even more worrisome for many parents and teachers: Last week, new data revealed the Pfizer vaccine, the only option approved for children ages 5 to 11, protected against hospitalization but offered almost no protection against infection for this age group.

The updated CDC guidance signals the Democratic party’s shift from beating the virus to surrendering to it as a fact of life — including in schools. The new approach was likely shaped by a number of factors, including declining COVID numbers, concerns about far-reaching public COVID fatigue, and the fact that many of those now most at risk of severe disease have refused to get vaccinated for non-medical reasons.

But the end of school masking is also in part due to a campaign by right-wing business interests, including the dark money network of oil billionaire Charles Koch, to keep the country open for the sake of maintaining corporate profits. These interests have been meddling in the education debate, first pushing to reopen schools and then fighting in-school safety measures, even as COVID case numbers were rising and children were ending up in hospitals. For nearly two years, these groups have been promoting questionable science and creating wedges between parents, teachers, and administrators in order to get America back to work — even at the risk of the nation’s children.

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On March 13, 2020, Yes Every Kid — a front group founded by the Koch network in 2019 as part of a larger effort to shape K-12 education in the states — launched a #LearnEverywhere campaign promoting remote learning and homeschooling. Three days later, the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank co-founded and heavily subsidized by Koch, published a commentary declaring that the U.S. could “tap into” charter, private, and homeschooling “if brick-and-​mortar schooling is substantially disrupted.”

The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing nonprofit heavily funded by the Charles Koch Foundation and Charles Koch Institute, also published articles in March 2020 in favor of using public school funds to pay parents to homeschool their kids. Heritage senior policy analyst Jonathan Butcher wrote a policy brief for the Koch-founded-and-funded Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank based at George Mason University, calling to funnel state funds into for-profit charter school companies providing virtual learning.

The message was blasted out by other groups in Koch’s orbit, including his flagship political advocacy outfit, Americans For Prosperity (AFP); the Independent Women’s Forum, a dark money group bankrolled by Koch organizations and the heirs to the Walmart fortune; and the State Policy Network, a web of libertarian state-based policy organizations.

But within a few months, the school narrative out of Koch world began to shift, coinciding with growing concerns about labor shortages and changing workplace dynamics caused by nationwide school closures. According to Education Week, a staggering 55.1 million students were impacted by the closures at their peak.

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The tight labor market changed the relationship between employers and their workers, who began demanding more flexibility and better work-life balance. Companies were forced to respond by raising wages — albeit inadequately — in order to attract workers.

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In May 2020, two months after the World Health Organization declared COVID a global pandemic, the Hoover Institution, a right-wing think tank based at Stanford University that has received substantial backing from Koch over the years, held a virtual conference at which senior fellow Eric Hanushek argued that remote learning was causing learning loss among low-resourced students and damaging “teacher accountability” through the elimination of standardized testing.

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Big industry groups also fought school closures, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s premier corporate lobby group. In September 2021, Chamber executive vice president and chief policy officer Neil Bradley said that “we have to have the schools fully reopen” in order to help solve the labor shortage.

As schools started reopening under the new Democratic administration, Koch-affiliated groups adopted a harder line. In the lead-up to the 2021 state elections, the organizations began opposing in-school mask requirements for students and teachers in addition to closures.

Observers say business interests likely saw masks as a damper on the return to pre-pandemic economic normalcy, given that they are a reminder of the ongoing public health crisis. Although the economy was recovering in 2021, it would still fall short of pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year, in terms of the number of workers and jobs. As of January 2022, the economy had 4.4 million fewer jobs and 2.7 million fewer workers.

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Meanwhile, Koch groups and their affiliates have also quietly worked to support grassroots efforts to end mask mandates.

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“While potential risks and benefits have been postulated, the most likely scenario is that masking during outings or school sessions will have a minimal impact on childhood development,” said child and adolescent psychiatrist Tyler Black, medical director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Emergency Department at British Columbia Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, who has long been a vocal critic of mental health justifications for easing pandemic protections.

Many pediatricians are alarmed at the end of school mask mandates.

“It’s sort of surprising to us that people want to remove some of these layered protection measures that we know work,” said veteran pediatric emergency physician Christina Johns, senior medical advisor and vice president of communications for PM Pediatrics, the country’s largest provider of specialized pediatric urgent care.

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Kansas-based pediatrician Natasha Burgert shares Johns’ concerns about abandoning masks and other safety measures. “You can’t just drop one of the cheapest, easiest, and quite honestly — at the larger scale — probably one of the most effective measures when you’re talking about the volume of schoolchildren that it’s protecting,” she said.

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The business-backed school normalcy campaign has proven to be remarkably successful. The CDC’s recent about-face on masks followed weeks of pressure from media declaring it was time to return to pre-pandemic schooling. In January, outlets like The Atlantic, New York Times, and Washington Post published op-eds calling to end school masking requirements. Cable news contributors joined in as well, like physician Leana Wen, who declared on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 that “the science has changed.”

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