Masks have stirred a lot of confusion and debate during the coronavirus pandemic. With most K-12 schools allowed to hold in-person sessions this fall, Governor Gary Herbert declared that schools across Utah must require everyone in a school building to wear masks. But recently, many parents tried to protest this mandate, claiming that the masks don’t help their kids and that the mandate is an infringement on their very constitutional rights. If parents want to home-school their children this fall because they don’t want their kids to wear masks, that’s their prerogative. But these same anti-mask parents do not have the right to inhibit the health and safety of other students or the general public.
The attitudes exhibited by the protestors in the Provo town hall meeting this month only create more worry about the spread of COVID-19 as Utah cases continue soaring. General stubbornness and complaints that masks don’t work and achieve nothing in this health (not political) crisis. The World Health Organization stated that while a “return to normal” is not likely for the foreseeable future, the potential for school outbreaks depends on the conditions of the states and the counties that school districts are in. Various forms of instruction–in-person, hybrid, and online–must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Higher education institutions took this into account as they developed their back-to-school plans, so there’s an example for K-12 schools to follow.
Local leaders should also look to other countries’ school starting strategies. We’ve seen that well-constructed plans for schools, from normal instruction to the event of a school outbreak, are most productive for an effective in-person learning environment. Guidelines include avid hand-washing, social distancing in classrooms and even outdoor instruction. While it’s nearly impossible to totally eliminate the risk of school COVID-19 cases, these different protocols are steps in the right direction for health and safety in Utah schools.
Masks would only provide more protection in preparing students and teachers to safely return under these circumstances. The overwhelming evidence that masks dampen the spread of COVID-19 should encourage everyone–except those with health conditions or under two years old–to wear one accordingly. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that when people wear masks, particles emitted from coughs or sneezes are sufficiently blocked to reduce the spread of the airborne virus. The faster a country implemented mandatory mask usage, the fewer cases and deaths it has seen.
Utahns can see the impact of masks even now with the Salt Lake County mask mandate. The requirement directly resulted in lower case numbers within Salt Lake County compared to non-mandated Utah counties. Salt Lake County’s share of the state’s COVID-19 cases dropped to 40% during the mandate period, down from roughly half just weeks earlier. The CDC’s evidence and the example in our own backyard further prove that masks will ultimately benefit our schools.
Of course, some people refuse to use face masks because they supposedly won’t protect the wearer–but (in addition to being a horrifyingly selfish excuse) that assumption is evolving with as research continues. While a mask won’t eradicate the risk of the wearer contracting the virus, evidence suggests that it could decrease the severity of the virus if contracted and still protect people more than if they didn’t wear one.
Essentially, if we all act together and wear masks, we will protect ourselves and each other. If parents do not want their children or themselves to wear a mask, that’s their choice. But they must be prepared to stay home as much as possible and face the consequences of moving in public spaces without one. For instance, people without masks are often offended when stores or restaurants requiring masks refuse to serve them. But it’s not an arbitrary rule– face coverings protect not just fellow shoppers, but the frontline workers who are exposed more than the average person.
The same idea will hold true with schools and children whose parents told them not to wear a mask. This is not an attack on anyone’s rights–it’s a proper precaution, especially as in-person contact surges throughout the state and the country. Immunocompromised classmates and teachers will be exposed enough as it is, so parents should encourage their children to wear a mask for the sake of their peers and their peers’ families. Children follow by example, so everyone–parents, especially–must provide that example by participating in this safe, simple act of selflessness.
Now more than ever, it’s important to meet the calls to action our governments and healthcare professionals have echoed. It’s not a hoax or elaborate government ruse to want your children to be safe in school and protect their classmates and teachers. The research on the spread of COVID-19 in children is still up in the air, but it’s best to be cautious rather than naively assume masks won’t make a difference for them. So if parents aren’t willing to make their children wear a mask to school, they should spare their communities by keeping them home altogether.