My kids will be returning to in-person school in just three days. Like many parents, I am sending them to school, masked, with their reusable water bottles and pocket-sized hand sanitizers and a prayer that they will not contract COVID-19 — not this year as they enter into first grade, not ever.
While there are many things I cannot protect them from, COVID-19 presents a unique kind of fear. There is a health and social challenge that has ended friendships, broken families apart, and worried government officials, some so much they are now silent about the issue. We know there are so many unknowns about COVID-19, but what we do know is that science is right. We know that wearing masks works.
For millions of students school has already begun. My kids are excited to pack their new backpacks up with their school supplies, wear their new light-up sneakers, and sit next to their friends at the lunch table, just like I did when I was their age when life seemed to be normal. The difference between when I was a kid and today’s experience for our kids is that common sense isn’t so common these days. When I was sick, I was kept home. When I got a cut, a band-aid was put on my wound. To stop the spread of COVID-19, we know what to do to protect our kids. But only some schools are doing it.
There are school districts across the country who are getting it right – who are enforcing mask mandates (as much as they can) to keep our kids and staff protected and on the right track to learn. And then there are those who aren’t. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, just last week 4.8 million children were diagnosed, with over 204,000 cases confirmed in one week’s time. As parents, as school officials, we have the power to be protective, to help our kids stay safe, and that can happen when we work together, follow rules from our schools and do what is right for our children – to keep them safe, healthy and in the classroom.
The annual email from my kids’ principal yesterday opened with the typical first of the year email pleasantries: “The first day of school is quickly approaching…” and then she got to the point. Twelve bulleted points later, I felt better than I had before I received the email. Why? Because my kids’ principal follows the science. In the United States, with a mere 53% of the population vaccinated, we have a long way to go to ensure the safety of our kids, among them the 5-11 year olds who cannot get vaccinated yet. My kids’ district is requiring us to send our kids to school with two masks — one on their faces and one in their backpacks.
It doesn’t just stop there either. Reusable water bottles are required to be sent to school every single day, and “mask breaks” are done outside. Some schools, like ours, know what works. Even last year, my kids were out due to mandatory quarantines and outbreaks, but the principal did what she needed to do to keep every kid safe – she shut down classrooms and made teachers who may not even have been a sick stay home too, out of precaution. Districts like some in Bangor, Maine, have an entire portal to help parents understand what is happening in their schools.
In most schools, visitors aren’t even allowed in the building without being buzzed into the front office. That’s how it is, no questions asked, because parents know it’s for everyone’s safety. Why can’t folks have the same level of acceptance about mask mandates?
In Washington state, where COVID-19 cases thanks to the Delta variant are on the rise, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said in a radio interview, “We are going to be in person. It won’t look like it did three years ago, or two years ago, but a little more like last spring where students are still going to have to wear face coverings, as well as staff.” Wearing face masks, for those unvaccinated and those vaccinated, decreases the risk of contracting the disease. What Superintendent Reykdal knows, as so many of us do, is that one way to keep kids in school and safe is to mandate that all people wear masks.
In the schools with high vaccination rates, including those of adults and kids over 12 who are eligible to receive the vaccine, who practice social distancing protocols and use good hygiene methods (soap/water/sanitizer), infection rates are low. It is all of the other states where face masks are optional in schools and rules to wear them are not enforced that we see headlines like these all across the internet: “’You don’t notice that it’s a crisis’: Few wearing masks in GA county where COVID-19 cases soaring” or this one, straight from the Georgia’s governor’s mouth: “‘Georgia will not lock down or impose statewide mask mandates,’ Gov. Kemp says”.
And then there is the shitshow we’ve all come to tune in for happening in Florida. One recent headline read: “Governor’s school mask-mandate ban illegal and unsupported, judge rules”. Or this one: “Some Florida School Districts Will Require Masks. The Governor May Cut Their Funding.
For some students in Georgia, Indiana, and Mississippi, remote learning is no longer simply a thing from the 2020-2021 school year but part of their 2021-2022 school year, as they’ve already had to go remote because of lax mask mandates and low vax numbers. Some governments and schools share this sentiment – like in South Carolina, where Governor Henry McMaster tweeted, “The Delta Variant poses a real threat to South Carolinians. However, shutting our state down, closing schools, and mandating masks is not the answer. Personal responsibility is.”
Even among states whose leadership is making poor decisions, though, there is some pushback by districts who know better. In Texas, for example, both the Dallas and Austin Independent School Districts are wisely requiring staff, students, and visitors to mask up, in direct defiance of Governor Greg Abbott’s statewide mask mandate ban.
In a recent town hall event in Boston, director of the CDC Dr. Rochelle Walensky gave the following statement: “The places that are having a problem, the places that are having disease that is transmitted in the schools, are the places that are not taking prevention strategies — the places that aren’t masking,” she noted. “The places where you see kids in the hospital, the places where you see footage of kids in the hospital, are all places that are not taking mitigation strategies to keep our children safe.”
The fact is, wearing a face mask (or deciding students don’t need to) is not a game of politics; it’s not a game at all. This is real life and we are all “in it” for better or worse. Let’s follow the example of the schools (and states) that are doing it well, those that are doing the best they can in the worst of times as the Delta variant poses risk to millions of kids and staff as they head back to school.