Mask mandate offers kids freedom to stay safe and in school
This is where we are: Nine months after not one, but three safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines became widely available to stop the pandemic that has killed more 600,000 Americans, little over half the people in this country and state are fully vaccinated.
A highly contagious delta variant circulates and it is making kids sick at a rate far greater than the initial strain.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said pediatric hospitalizations increased fivefold over the summer as delta spread. Unvaccinated teens were hospitalized at a rate 10 times higher than those vaccinated, as The New York Times reported. There is no vaccine yet approved for children 12 and under and, thus, no protection.
In Pennsylvania delta accounts for more than 92% of current COVID cases. Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration said cases surged from less than 300 a day to more 3,000 a day over the summer. And in August, COVID infections among school-aged children leapt by more than 11,000, just as we all hoped for a return to a normal school year.
We know how to keep children safe and their schools open. Studies show wearing masks reduces spread of the virus and allows students to gather safely and learn.
So, at this turning point, possessing the tools and knowledge to hold the line on the virus, protect children and keep them in school, what are we doing?
Fighting over face masks.
It seems a lifetime ago but recall the response to face masks when COVID first emerged. Seamstresses bought reams of cloth. How-to videos and photos of homemade face-coverings stitched up for medical heroes crowded our social media feeds. We needed that big-hearted, can-do, all-American sprit to win this fight. But it soon soured as groups, some funded by dark money, politicized measures to fight the pandemic from school closures to masks to business shutdowns.
It is true some mitigation strategies missed the mark, did harm or over-reached, not surprising given the unprecedented nature of the crisis. But bad actors also leveraged flaws and sowed disinformation to splinter our will and undermine efforts to force the virus into retreat.
Wolf weathered heavy Republican criticism for his pandemic mitigation orders and in the May primary voters amended the state constitution to limit the governor’s power to extend emergency orders.
Opponents said response to the pandemic should be a matter of liberty and individual responsibility not executive fiat. So over the summer, Wolf left it to school districts to decide whether to order students to wear masks when schools reopened.
As school boards and medical advisers crafted their safety plans, public meetings in too many spots across the state and nation devolved into appalling spectacles with parents voicing anger, abuse and even threats of violence.
Opponents cast face masks as oppression.
In the end, only about 50 of the state’s 501 districts adopted mandatory mask policies.
With cases mounting rapidly among children and the start of the new school year fast approaching, Wolf asked the Legislature in August to return to Harrisburg to pass legislation requiring masks in schools and child care centers as advised by the CDC. When they refused, acting Health Secretary Alison Beam mandated wearing masks and did so with the support of more than a dozen medical and education experts and agencies statewide, including the state’s chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
This moment offered lawmakers, so often at odds with Wolf, an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to ending the pandemic and protecting children by making a tough, unpopular call. They ducked, saying safety measures should be decided on the local level. While we agree generally, here the administration's mandate is responsive to the growing threat posed by delta and also relieves school boards from having to contend with the rage that wrongly surrounds this issue.
Members of the House returned to Harrisburg to seek ways to fight the mandate. Three lawsuits against the mandate are now pending.
GOP House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff wrote that mitigation decisions should be made surgically by local officials because the total case counts vary so greatly statewide. What matters more are rates of vaccination and spread and those conditions don't bode well in many small rural counties.
Children are more at risk in areas of low vaccination. Reports document that some infected by delta are becoming seriously ill. Some have died and some are suffering rare, related conditions. Is the risk worth it?
The country is at war with the virus but students are not being asked to sacrifice as generations past have. There is no draft. No rationing. No blackouts to hide from German bombers as in WWII England. There is, instead, a chance to learn a valuable life lesson about unity, sacrifice and the common good.
We agree liberty is at stake – that of the virus to spread, endanger children and those they encounter. Each successful transmission gives it fresh chance to mutate, possibly into a vaccine-resistant strain.
Our school districts proved resourceful when the virus hit in March 2020 and they pivoted to online learning. But too many districts contended with inadequate technology and internet access and other practical challenges.
Kids suffered. Learning suffered. Parents juggling their own employment from home suffered. Employers lost out, as women exited the workforce to meet child care duties.
We don’t have to go back. We just need to do the right thing and follow the mask guidance. Not forever — just until the virus abates thanks to safety protocols, increased vaccinations, or we get a vaccine approved to protect our youngest.
The freedom that matters most for children now is freedom from COVID. Don’t complicate it.