Terry H. Schwadron

Aug. 1, 2021

OK, we all understand there’s a huge backlash to renewed attempts to mask us, vaccinated or not.

But can we focus for a minute on schools?

In response to fast-spreading the Delta-mutant coronavirus strain and rising cases, the Centers for Disease Control has changed its mask-wearing advice to wearing them indoors or at larger gatherings, Joe Biden is telling federal employees they need to be vaccinated or face frequent testing, cities and counties are weighing local masking orders — in other words, responding to what is reported as a renewed public health threat.

At the same time, we see members of Congress throwing masks on the ground, some Republican governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida banning localities from ordering masks, and lots of angry protest about individual liberty to make such decisions.
We’re not even talking about vaccines here, just mask-wearing.

The surge in cases and new federal guidelines are spurring a huge debate, school district by school district, over whether to require masks in school. Some states never lifted the requirement for student and teacher masks, others are now barring school districts from requiring masks or threatening to fine school leaders or cut state funding if they attempt it.

It feels like the culture wars once again are forgetting the main questions before us for the frustrating need to call out Science, federal control, and a variety of perceived bogeymen: For every reason under the sun, we want kids — kids who cannot be vaccinated yet — back in school for face-to-face learning, even if covered faces.

Shouldn’t we be focused on how to get that done rather than on political posturing?

Caught in the Middle

News reports are reflecting that school leaders are caught in the middle. The medical advice is shifting, parents are insisting that they and not government figures should make a health-based decision, there are the usual wacky faux science claims that masks somehow can hurt kids. Mostly, though, can’t we agree that we’re seeing school kids used as pawns to purse the Great Political Divide?

If there is a single item on which Americans (actually most global citizens) should be able to agree, it is that a year of Zoom learning from home had a poor effect on student learning. Even with dedicated teachers and committed parents, capturing the attention of young students for a full day of learning by laptop proved a stretch, and lots of reports are reflecting that test scores and school achievement was down.

Plus, enforced home schooling meant that women, in particular, had to give up jobs and has slowed economic recovery, and it sorely tested the abilities of teachers who were forced at once to deal with split attention for partial in-person classes while also teaching to others over Zoom.

In short, the job at hand is to get students and teachers back in school. If they have to wear masks, so what? Let’s not lose the main focus here.

Some opponents of mask mandates rely on fringe science to back claims that masks are ineffective. Others say that they are concerned masks will leave children traumatized and impede their learning and that the disease poses little threat to children — though they can still spread it to adults, reported The Washington Post. Many argue that the public health guidelines infringe on their personal liberty.

Generally, teacher unions, representing school employees as front-line workers, have been open to vaccine and mask mandates.

Local school officials quoted in various news articles are clear that there is a split in their communities: “There is no way in good conscience that I could bring anybody back into the school environment, on the bus, the cafeteria, and not have a mask mandate,” Rosalind Osgood, chair of the Broward County School Board, told The Post, adding that she will have to risk brooking an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis to do so. In a smaller Texas district, the local school superintendent says, “Will covid-19 spread more readily if government doesn’t require masks? Yes. Is it dangerous? Yes. I don’t think school people are ignorant of these realities or deny them. There are no easy answers here. Basically, a school’s masking policy has to reflect its community’s masking expectations.”

In other words, this is about politics.

Really? Individual Decisions?

Strangely, perhaps, the same people who argue that masks should be decided only by individuals and families do not follow that principle elsewhere in public education.

You might think that a gender-fluid student and family would be encouraged to make an individual decision about which bathroom to use, but that’s not what’s happening in lots of districts. Nor dress codes. Nor orders about how long hair can be or whether dreadlocks are allowed. We certainly are not conducting plebiscites to determine whether students are expected to learn English or math.

But there are specific sensitivities we’re seeing. “Critical race theory,” the blanket term being used to describe inclusion of teaching that racism in this country has underscored actual history beyond legalized slavery suddenly is the responsibility of parents, not teachers, particularly in states with Republican-majority state legislatures which threaten teachers who disobey. So, too, certain books in the school library that may touch on race or immigration in ways that do not conform with increasingly sharp Republican party politics.

If your school won’t require masks, and you worry about new strains of coronavirus spreading, why would you agree to send your kid to school? If you hate mandates for masks so much that you would put your kid’s school progress at risk, why would you agree to send your kid to school?

The arguments from both sides lead to a single conclusion: Politics are more important to some parents than the school progress of their kids.

Let’s give these parents a failing grade. Protest mask mandates as you wish, but how about leaving schools out of the politics?

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www.terryschwadron.wordpress.com

Journalist, musician, community volunteer