In another 13 days, my kids will be returning to in-person school for the first time in a year and a half. As much as we’d all hoped things would be back to normal by now, the pandemic continues to be a looming presence in our lives. The DELTA variant is sweeping through the nation, causing severe illness and death in unvaccinated populations.
Unfortunately, because the vaccine has not yet been approved for those under 12, more and more children are getting sick. Just recently more than 8,000 kids in one Florida school district had to quarantine due to a COVID outbreak.
But, why is this happening? We’re no longer in the beginning stages of the pandemic where we scrubbed our hands 100 times a day and left packages outside to sterilize in the sun. We know now that simple measures like masks and contact tracing can keep our unvaccinated children safe. So, why aren’t we doing it?
The situation has been particularly intense in my local town of Bucks County, PA. As a swing county in a swing state, larger political forces often filter into our small-town decision-making. Such was the case last month when the school board, following the direction of our local Health director, was poised to go against the CDC and AAP’s recommendations on mask-wearing.
Before the vote, a group of local doctors and concerned community members held a press conference to voice their support for COVID mitigation. The conference was interrupted by a large group of anti-mask folks who yelled, “illegal alien” when a doctor (a woman of color) spoke, mocked “I can’t breathe” at a Black man, and screamed “I don’t give a sh*t!” when a 16-year old student spoke about losing her family to COVID in India.
Despite the multitude of doctors who spoke in favor of following federal guidelines, these loud disruptive voices dominated the dialogue and the board voted against any COVID mitigation for the school year.
But, the story doesn’t end there. In the last few weeks, numerous articles have taken a deeper look at the board’s decision and our local health director’s advice. An anonymous Twitter account, in the refined style of Bridgerton, has even sprung up, where bad behavior is called out and political motivations are questioned.
Finally yesterday, in a dramatic turn of events, the Department of Health changed course and recommended mask wearing for students. While the school board still holds the final vote, their consistent insistence that they are obligated to follow the DOH raises hope that they will mandate masks for the beginning of the school year.
But, why did it take so much public pressure for the Department of Health to advise what doctors around the country have insisted is the best way to keep children safe? Were the children’s best interests in mind or were there political forces at play? Are masks really THAT big of an inconvenience for our kids that we shouldn’t require them, even though we know how effective they are at lowering COVID transmission?
If I’m being honest, I’ll admit that I am looking forward to a day when masks are no longer necessary. I miss the warm intimacy of smiles. And yet, despite my preference, I continue to wear a mask in indoor places with unvaccinated people because I know it can save lives.
I think about these things when I parent my own children. We are fortunate in that all three of my children are old enough to be vaccinated. Being that they are in good health and fully vaccinated, my personal worries about them becoming seriously ill from COVID are minimal. And yet, despite the fact that our particular family isn’t at high risk, they know that I’m working hard to ensure our school has a strong COVID mitigation policy that includes mask-wearing until most of the students have been vaccinated.
Even my 12-year-old daughter understands the importance of mask-wearing. In fact, she’s often the one to remind me to bring one along when we go places. At a recent board meeting, she spoke during the public commentary and said, “Kids have no problem wearing masks, why are adults making such a big deal about it?”
I know she’s right. Giving children a chance to actively participate in keeping their community healthy, with age-appropriate explanations and expectations builds resilience, empathy, agency, and a sense of control. Masks are not the problem, they are part of the solution. It’s the Golden Rule in action.
Through almost 18 years of parenting, I’ve seen that children learn much more through our example than through our words. By working to protect our community and wearing a mask myself, I hope that I’m showing my kids the importance of standing up for others, of community care over selfishness, of doing the right thing even when it’s not the most convenient.
When I think back to that press conference, to all those parents who claimed to be fighting for their community while they harassed doctors and students, I wonder what lessons their actions are teaching children.