The debate over mask mandates in public schools has turned absurd. On one side, a Douglas County opponent of mandates referred to the “mask Gestapo,” as though requiring students in schools to wear a face covering in the middle of a pandemic is remotely comparable to perpetrating the Nazi Holocaust. On the other side, some mask advocates paint opponents as callous death-worshippers. And the director of Jefferson County Public Health made the bizarro claim that, if the district didn’t impose masks, next parents might “begin sending children to school armed.” Eh?
The mask war has become a proxy for tribal politics. Many of the most vocal participants in the “debate” are more concerned with beating up their opponents and confirming their presumptions than with objectively checking into the relevant facts. A recent Magellan poll found that, although the public as a whole splits roughly evenly, “83% of Democrats agree that students should be required to wear masks, and 79% of Republicans disagree with a mask mandate for students.”
There is a reasonable case on each side. Masks clearly do reduce the mouth spray in which viruses spread. On the other hand, children remain at much lower risk from the virus relative to adults, younger children are less likely to wear masks well, and plausibly many students do better when they can see and respond to others’ facial cues. If you refuse to entertain the strongest case of the other side, and imagine only the worst possible motives among your opponents, then, bluntly, you are being a tribalist, and you should stop that.
Vaccines for children
A good way to tell that many people are intellectually unserious about the mask debate is that they largely or entirely ignore obviously better ways to keep students safe in school: vaccinate students and hold classes outside. (Using more rapid tests also would help, but I won’t discuss that further here.) Many people would rather scream at each other about masks than figure out how to keep students and the adults they interact with safe.
The reason that parents cannot get their children under 12 vaccinated is that the U.S. government, via the (Congressionally authorized) FDA, outlaws vaccines for those children. Someone who hyperventilates about the “freedom” not to wear a mask in public spaces, but who ignores the freedom to get kids vaccinated, is not really concerned with freedom.
My view on the FDA is shared not only by “crazy” libertarians. Obviously we want adequate testing of vaccines in the context of serious cost-benefit considerations. That bar has been met. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics called on the FDA to hasten vaccines for younger children. That we opened school this year without allowing parents to vaccinate their kids will go down as one of the more bone-headed moves by the government during this pandemic, up there with throttling tests and needlessly delaying vaccines for adults.
True, at the local level, we cannot directly change U.S. vaccine policy. We can and should, however, urge our Congressional representatives to promote meaningful reform.
Holding class outside is radically better than requiring kids to wear masks, and it’s something we can implement locally. A recent study specifically on SARS-CoV-2 aerosol transmission in schools found that masks are important but that ventilation is more important: “The most effective single intervention was natural ventilation through the full opening of six windows all day during the winter (14-fold decrease in cumulative dose), followed by the universal use of surgical face masks (8-fold decrease).” (Surgical masks are better than cloth masks but not as good as N95 masks.)
So good ventilation inside helps a lot. But why just open the windows? Move classes outside! Olga Khazan sensibly suggested this last year. As we move into late summer, Colorado weather often is beautiful. To deal with heat, schools could erect shades and even put up open-air evaporative (swamp) coolers. There are even plans online for low-cost DIY coolers that science classes could take on. These would improve ventilation even more. Plus, it’s just more fun to have class outside anyway, at least while the pleasant weather holds.
We do need to take school safety seriously. Although kids are at lower risk from the virus, some do get very sick, and others pass along the virus to more-susceptible adults. And the Delta variant spreads more easily.
The trend lines are concerning. We opened schools just as the Delta variant drove a Fifth Wave of infections. Colorado’s Fourth Wave peaked on May 8 with 679 hospitalizations of people with confirmed Covid cases (plus another 52 suspected cases). Following a July 18 trough of 261 hospitalizations (plus 47 suspected cases), the Fifth Wave surpassed the previous peak on August 25, with 680 hospitalizations (plus another 133 suspected cases). “The majority of infections, hospitalizations and fatalities are among people who are not vaccinated,” the Denver Post reported.
In short, the pandemic ain’t over.
I do want to address the idea among some conservatives that rejecting mask mandates in government schools is somehow about liberty. For example, Douglas County Commissioner George Teal said of the Tri-County mask mandate, “By opting out of this public health order, we will be securing the blessings of liberty.” (The school district requires masks despite the county’s action.)
The context here is socialized schooling, or, if you prefer, government-monopoly schooling. If we want to talk about liberty in education, we need to go a little deeper than mask rules!
Conservatives generally recognize that governments need to impose safety rules for government-run operations. Is imposing a mask mandate in government schools really so different from imposing a car-seat mandate on government roads? If you want to make a pragmatic argument that one mandate is needed while another is not, fine, but let’s not pretend that one is fundamentally more at odds with liberty.
Remember that old line, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare”? That was a silly thing to say because Medicare is a government program. “Keep your government hands off of our government-run schools” runs into the same problem. If the claim is that a Tri-County order violates liberty but a comparable mandate at the county or district level does not, then the argument is merely about which level of government trumps.
The real issue for liberty here is that government forces people to finance government schools, whether or not they use those schools or approve of those schools’ policies. If we want to discuss giving people the freedom to use their educational dollars as they see fit, great.
As a homeschool parent, the public schools’ rules don’t directly affect me. My son has worn a surgical mask at various events without any problems. I regard the hue and cry over mask-wearing as rather silly. The only problem I’ve had wearing a mask is a little “maskne” (mask acne) on the tip of my nose where the mask rubbed. What does affect me is the permanent mandate that my family help finance the public schools that we don’t use.
If public schools impose mask mandates, at worst that’s barely an inconvenience for most kids. And masks probably will help somewhat to keep the spread of Covid down. But vaccinating kids or moving classes outside would be radically more effective. Maybe the partisans will stop screaming at each other long enough consider such common-sense approaches.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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