It has been said that universal masking is optimal, a kind of “gold standard.” And yet, I’m sure many educators, students and parents would agree that what we are seeing in our classrooms today is far from the gold standard.
How do we reconcile this?
The answer is mask choice for our students and our teachers.
Although we’ve been waiting and watching the numbers, many of us have come to realize that there will never be a date, a fact, a figure or an absolute number that provides a universal level of comfort. In terms of development of the brain, the younger a child is, the more critical is each day that passes…so while some people are just fine waiting this out “a little bit longer,” some are not.
Will our children catch up on their learning loss? Will their brains compensate and just figure out the world anew once we take the masks off? I am hopeful, I really am! But I also wonder why we are so committed to kicking the can further down the road instead of honestly evaluating these policies, not only how well they’re “working” on Covid transmission, but how well they’re “working” for education and child development. The single factor in decision-making has been the public health factor, and that is certainly understandable. But when will we start balancing the public health crisis that exists right now with the public health crises of our future? In the case of the mental health of our children and adolescents, that crisis is unfolding quickly.
There are many data points to consider if we can just agree to open the conversation and honestly discuss the impacts on our children without fear of being called selfish or reckless. I am hopeful here too.
We all navigate risk every single day and we can continue to do so thoughtfully in regard to this pandemic. There are many ways that students and teachers can continue to keep each other safe without universal masking, but the idea of a student carrying the burden of harming or protecting the adults around them must be re-evaluated. This is especially true now as the adults they protect have access to all of the protections possible, through vaccinations, boosters, natural immunity, through readily available surgical and KN-95 masks and through frequent testing.
Children who need additional protection can continue to mask. We should ensure that our students and school communities embrace acceptance around different choices so that students and teachers can continue to mask as they see fit.
Teachers have been working so hard to make learning meaningful and engaging for our students, and I want to honor their incredible dedication during these most challenging of times. Our child is thrilled to be back at school, and she has had a great year and we’re so grateful. This isn’t just about my kid though, I have spoken to many other families who have kids who are struggling with universal masking. A one-size-fits-all policy is unacceptable after two years.
Mask choice is not about anyone’s political loss or gain. It is about protecting the most vulnerable (our children), and it is also out of respect for both the individual child and the greater good. I’ve heard many times that people who are advocating for mask choice are just tired, that we are “over it.” The reality is that many of us who are advocating for school mask choice are still very much “in it.”
We see our kids in Connecticut following Covid restrictions every single day. This is still very real for us. We launder the dirty masks, we comfort our children during the after-school meltdowns, we note how elated they are on playdates to really SEE each other, and we have to answer the question of “how much longer, Mom?” Although we have not been in the school building this entire time, parents are not removed or out-of-touch from the reality of the impacts on our own kids.
I understand and accept that not everyone sees these mandates the same way, but I just hope we can keep the conversation open. My mother was ambivalent about the idea of lifting the mask mandates for kids. Then she went into her office for the first time in months, and had to wear a mask for a 90-minute meeting at work. She was surprised at how much harder it was for her personally to focus and engage in the conversation. When we spoke again, I pointed to my 3-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, and said, “can you imagine seven hours a day at their ages?” Her perspective changed dramatically that day when she truly realized how long these kids are masked each day, and for how many days and months.
Mask choice is about empathy. Mask choice honors that there are no absolutes, that there is likely no one right answer here. We need to move forward cautiously, with compassion, and with choice for our children and our teachers, and we need to move forward now.