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Stepankowsky column: Masks in schools worth discussing

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Andre Stepankowsky

ANDRE STEPANKOWSKY

Cowlitz County public schools will open in about a month, and children will thankfully, mercifully and beneficially be back in class. They’ve lost precious time to COVID, and let’s hope they can make up lost ground.

By all accounts, learning from home has often been ineffective and has isolated students, leading to depression, anxiety, trauma, lower test scores and other problems. Some experts compare the impact with the social and mental repercussions of a major disaster. A few are calling for a comprehensive, New Deal-level response to help kids recover.

Yet one more important question remains as students take their seats and teachers begin instruction: Should all students and school personnel be required to wear masks — as they were when in-school classes resumed here briefly last spring?

It’s a question all local school boards will be facing soon and which needs sober consideration.

As it stood late last week, the Washington State Department of Health was requiring masks for all students and staff unless they are outside, regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated. This goes beyond the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which suggests that vaccinated teachers and students do not need them.

State health officials are expected to issue updated rules any day now. The guess here is they’ll stick with the mask mandate, taking the lead of the American Association of Pediatrics. The group, which represents 67,000 pediatricians nationwide, last week recommended everyone 2 years old and older wear masks in school, regardless of their vaccination status.

“AAP recommends universal masking because a significant portion of the student population is not yet eligible for vaccines, and masking is proven to reduce transmission of the virus and to protect those who are not vaccinated. Many schools will not have a system to monitor vaccine status of students, teachers and staff, and some communities overall have low vaccination uptake where the virus may be circulating more prominently,” the group said in its announcement

“Research has shown that opening schools generally does not significantly increase community transmission with masking and other safety measures in place. Recently, COVID-19 variants have emerged that may increase the risk of transmission and result in worsening illness. Given the effectiveness of safety precautions when used consistently, children are at higher risk of suffering mental health issues and developmental setbacks if they miss out on in-school learning,” according to AAP.

Whatever the state health officials decide, they’re likely to get blowback from conservatives such as state Rep. Jim Walsh, who wants individuals and parents to make their own decisions and who doesn’t believe health department rules based on the governor’s emergency proclamation are legally binding. In a recent Facebook post, he called them an example of “bureaucratic overreach.”

There’s no room to debate that legal question here, except to note the Longview and Kelso school boards generally have followed state COVID mandates, with a few exceptions. However, Longview School Board candidates Melissa Roberts and the incumbent she is running against, Crystal Moldenhauer, both oppose mandatory mask rules.

Roberts in particular cites them as examples of “draconian anti-social measures that have become the norm for education.” And she asserts that science shows that most children are not at risk from the virus.

Well, that last statement is only partly true.

Children represent about 8.5% of reported U.S. COVID cases, with relatively few deaths compared to other age groups and usually mild disease, according to the CDC. “However, cases of critical illness have been reported. As with adults, pre-existing medical conditions have been suggested as a risk factor for severe disease and intensive care admission in children.” And, of course, kids can pass the disease on to others.

Mask mandates make sense when you consider that most school students are not yet eligible for vaccination, the highly contagious delta variant now has become the dominant strain in the nation, and the rate of adult vaccinations is sluggish, particularly in rural counties such as ours.

I know the problems with requiring kids to wear masks. They fidget. They rebel. They lose a bit of their identity.

But masks work — and they will help keep kids in school. St. Rose Catholic School, for example, last year operated in-person classes with mandatory mask rules. There wasn’t a single in-school transmission, even though several students and staff members got infected elsewhere and recovered. Wearing masks may be unpleasant— but it is not draconian, and it’s not going to make people sick, as some critics assert.

It’s a popular and a libertarian thing to say that officials should let parents make mask decisions for their children. The problem with that notion is severalfold: Parents in effect make a decision that potentially gets dozens of others sick. They don’t have access to the information the experts do. Too many of them rely on politically and ignorance-driven social media for their information. Kids who wear masks might be ridiculed by those who don’t.

Folks, this is not about authoritarianism or embarrassing others. It’s about protecting the health of our school children and their teachers.

In the name of free choice, the far right has opposed nearly all social distancing measures recommended or ordered to control the disease. Do they want COVID defeated or not?

Individual choice has prolonged the pandemic. We need more concern for the common good. You don’t get to make up your own traffic rules. You don’t get to dump motor oil in public waterways. Remember that the U.S. Constitution was adopted in part to “promote the general welfare.” Heed it.

If we’ve learned anything in our struggles with COVID-19, it’s that we shouldn’t underestimate it. We’ve in effect declared victory only to see the virus surge a second, third and now a fourth time. Let’s not let it force us to shutter our schools again. Public officials in this state and across the nation have been pressured into lifting social distancing restrictions prematurely, and that has come back to bite us.

Mask mandates in school make sense right now. Perhaps they could be lifted if the community’s lagging vaccination rate improves to, say 75%, or when students become eligible for vaccines, which President Joe Biden announced could come this fall.

Until then, school kids and staff should mask up.

Andre Stepankowsky retired in August after a 41-year career as a reporter and city editor at The Daily News. He has won or shared in many prestigious journalism awards, including the staff’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Mount St. Helens. His column will appear on the editorial page every other Wednesday.

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