I would love for this to be a normal school year.
I would relish the opportunity to teach my classes of middle school students without a mask covering my face and obscuring my voice.
I would enjoy being able to see the expressions on their faces as I welcomed them to class and got to know them.
But I am not stupid.
I know that doing so would not be worth the cost.
The pandemic is not over – not in Pennsylvania. Covid-19 cases are on the rise in my community and an increasing number of children have gotten sick, been hospitalized or died.
Forgoing masks would risk more. It’s just not worth it.
Only a month ago child Covid cases numbered in the zeroes or low single-digits each day in my home of Allegheny County, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. During the past two weeks there have been as many as 30 to 40 new child cases a day.
Some of these are kids 11 and younger who are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Some are those 12 and older who have not been vaccinated. And a few are break-through cases among vaccinated kids, said Dr. Andrew Nowalk, clinical director of infectious diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are recommending everyone in schools – students, staff, visitors, etc. – wear masks whether they’ve been vaccinated or not.
As a school director, why would you take a chance with the children in your care?
There are so many questions I have about this situation that all seem to boil down to variations on that one.
Dr. Todd Wolynn, CEO of Kids Plus Pediatrics, an independent pediatrics practice with several locations in the region, put it this way:
“We’re here to ask one question to school districts not doing universal masking: Why is your situation safer [without a mask mandate] than what is recommended by the AAP and the CDC?”
Why is it safer to forgo this precaution?
Wearing a mask is not all that hard. We all did it throughout most of the last year and a half.
Why is it so hard to just continue doing it a little while longer?
I asked a similar question of Bryan Macuga, Assistant Superintendent of Steel Valley School District where I work.
He mentioned at a district wide meeting that the new health and safety plan approved by the school board makes masks optional this year. I asked him why.
He refused to give me an answer. He simply said that’s what’s been decided and would say no more.
Superintendent Ed Wehrer was there at the meeting wearing a mask to – as he put it – “model” that behavior. Wehrer said he was empowered by the school board to mandate masks if it became necessary. He hasn’t done so nor did he find it necessary to answer my question, either.
I can’t imagine it.
If these leaders really think it is better not to mandate masks, why not explain their reasoning. We may agree or disagree with them, but they can’t even show us the courtesy of a straight answer to a fair question.
Whatever their reasoning, most Allegheny County school directors must disagree with it.
The majority of the county’s 43 school districts – 70% – have mandated masks in their schools. It’s heartening to see so many school leaders putting children over politics this way. I just wish I lived and worked in one of their communities.
Only 13 county districts are making masks optional and most of those are clustered on the southeastern border with more rural (and Republican) Westmoreland County.
I don’t understand how ideology makes people risk the lives of their own kids.
Throughout the rest of the state, the situation seems even worse.
Pennsylvania has 500 school districts. Of 474 that submitted health and safety plans by July, only 59 reported plans to mandate masks for the 2021-22 year. This number is certainly higher now as districts changed their plans based on increases in Covid cases through August. But the situation is still incredibly frustrating.
However, Wolf is a Democrat and the legislature is controlled by Republicans so this request was soundly rejected.
It’s unclear whether Wolf will try to do this on his own under his authority as governor especially since voters just limited his ability to do so in a referendum in May.
Politics. Stupid politics while our children are in danger.
Elections have consequences but so do boneheaded decisions by elected leaders.
The choice to make masks optional needlessly puts so much in jeopardy.
Not just healthy and safety but the ability of schools to function well.
One of the major takeaways of the last pandemic year was how ineffective and frustrating remote schooling is. Even under the best of circumstances in-person classes are far superior.
However, refusing to put in place safety precautions like universal masking puts in-person learning at risk.
If Covid infections are high enough, schools must close and go back to remote instruction.
Why would school directors risk that?
If their main concern is academics, why not install the kinds of provisions that at least allow for the best method of instruction?
There seems to be a cynical calculus here – various games of chicken with local government against higher state and federal authorities.
Republicans refuse to legislate safety precautions. Democrats often are too afraid to do so.
The result is our current fractured map of diverse reactions to the same disaster.
In short, it may take a larger disaster to break the political gridlock.
Certainly kids will get sick. Without a doubt they will bring the virus home to parents, friends and family.
But will the net result be bad enough to force – and I do mean FORCE – lockdowns, quarantines and remote schooling?
I don’t know the answer. And neither do anti-maskers, but they are recklessly betting that the consequences won’t be bad enough to force their hand.
Honestly, in a sane society this careless attitude endangering children and families would be enough to bring condemnation and shame.
But in our broken system it will take a true catastrophe of epic proportions. Judging from last year, mask optional districts will do whatever they can to obscure the level of damage their policies are doing and stay the course unless the explosion is so big as to be impossible to hide.
We’re talking kindergarten classes full of Covid patients, tiny tots attached to ventilators, lawsuits and funerals in equal measure.
I don’t know if it will come to that, but if it does, we know who to blame.
Any disruptions in education, any illnesses, any long-term effects must be laid at the feet of the decision makers who could have protected us from it but refused to do so.
They have a responsibility that is being ignored.
I can only hope that one day they receive the justice their actions today make them so richly deserve.
The following is a list from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette of public school districts in Allegheny County and their position on universal masking for the 2021-22 school year (as of Wednesday, Aug. 25):
Allegheny Valley (Cheswick and Springdale boroughs; Harmar and Springdale townships)
Avonworth School District (Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Emsworth, Kilbuck and Ohio Township)
Carlynton (Carnegie, Crafton, Rosslyn Farms)
Cornell (Coraopolis, Neville Island)
East Allegheny (East McKeesport, Wall, Wilmerding, North Versailles)
Fox Chapel Area (Fox Chapel, Sharpsburg, Aspinwall, O’Hara, Blawnox, Indiana Township)
Gateway (Monroeville, Pitcairn)
Keystone-Oaks (Dormont, Castle Shannon, Green Tree)
Montour (Kennedy Township, Robinson Township, Ingram, Thornburg, Pennsbury Village)
Moon Area (Crescent, Moon)
North Allegheny — (Marshall, McCandless, Bradford Woods, Franklin Park); masks required as a result of legal action.
Northgate — (Bellevue, Avalon)
North Hills (Ross, West View)
Pittsburgh Public Schools (Pittsburgh, Mount Oliver)
Quaker Valley (Sewickley, Leetsdale, Edgeworth, Glen Osborne, Sewickley Hills, Sewickley Heights, Bell Acres, Haysville, Glenfield, Leet, Aleppo)
Riverview (Oakmont, Verona)
Shaler Area (Shaler, Etna, Millvale, Reserve)
Sto-Rox (McKees Rocks, Stowe)
Upper St. Clair
West Allegheny (Findlay, North Fayette, Oakdale)
West Mifflin Area (West Mifflin, Whitaker)
Woodland Hills (Braddock, Braddock Hills, Chalfant, Churchill, East Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Forest Hills, North Braddock, Rankin, Swissvale, Turtle Creek, Wilkins)
Chartiers Valley — Optional but “strongly recommended”; (Bridgeville, Heidelberg, Collier, Scott)
Deer Lakes (West Deer, Frazer, East Deer)
Highlands (Tarentum, Brackenridge, Fawn, Harrison)
McKeesport Area (McKeesport, Versailles, South Versailles, Dravosburg, White Oak)
South Allegheny (Port Vue, Liberty, Glassport, Lincoln)
Steel Valley (Homestead, Munhall, West Homestead)
West Jefferson Hills (Jefferson Hills, West Elizabeth, Pleasant Hills)
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