School Leaders Refusing to Mandate Masks Are Responsible for the Coming Storm

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.  


 


Masks and vaccines should not be political.  


 
They should be the purview of science and reason


 
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. 


 
This week Gov. Tom Wolf called on the legislature to reconvene and pass a motion to mandate masks in Commonwealth schools.  


 
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): 


MASKS REQUIRED 


Allegheny Valley (Cheswick and Springdale boroughs; Harmar and Springdale townships) 


Avonworth School District (Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Emsworth, Kilbuck and Ohio Township) 


Bethel Park 


Carlynton (Carnegie, Crafton, Rosslyn Farms) 


Clairton City 


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) 


Hampton 


Keystone-Oaks (Dormont, Castle Shannon, Green Tree) 


Montour (Kennedy Township, Robinson Township, Ingram, Thornburg, Pennsbury Village) 


Moon Area (Crescent, Moon) 


Mt. Lebanon 


North Allegheny — (Marshall, McCandless, Bradford Woods, Franklin Park); masks required as a result of legal action. 


Northgate — (Bellevue, Avalon) 


North Hills (Ross, West View) 


Penn Hills 


Pine-Richland 


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) 


South Fayette 


Sto-Rox (McKees Rocks, Stowe) 


Upper St. Clair 


West Allegheny (Findlay, North Fayette, Oakdale) 


West Mifflin Area (West Mifflin, Whitaker) 


Wilkinsburg 


Woodland Hills (Braddock, Braddock Hills, Chalfant, Churchill, East Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Forest Hills, North Braddock, Rankin, Swissvale, Turtle Creek, Wilkins) 


OPTIONAL 


Baldwin-Whitehall 


Brentwood 


Chartiers Valley — Optional but “strongly recommended”; (Bridgeville, Heidelberg, Collier, Scott) 


Deer Lakes (West Deer, Frazer, East Deer) 


Duquesne City 


Elizabeth Forward 


Highlands (Tarentum, Brackenridge, Fawn, Harrison) 


McKeesport Area (McKeesport, Versailles, South Versailles, Dravosburg, White Oak) 


Plum 


South Allegheny (Port Vue, Liberty, Glassport, Lincoln) 


South Park 


Steel Valley (Homestead, Munhall, West Homestead) 


West Jefferson Hills (Jefferson Hills, West Elizabeth, Pleasant Hills)   

 


 

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The Government Should Make Unvaccinated Students & Staff Mask Up in Schools

As a classroom teacher, I cannot enforce safety protocols in my school all by myself.

I can’t make students and coworkers wear masks.

I can’t require people to show me their medical records to determine with any degree of certainty who is and is not fully vaccinated.

But when it comes to Covid-19, the federal government is again throwing up its hands and leaving all safety protocols to small town government officials, local school directors, and schmucks like me.


The result is a patchwork of inconsistent and inadequate safety directives that put far too many at risk.

Here we go again.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidelines Friday that it is safe for public schools to open for in-person learning so long as unvaccinated students and staff wear masks and an attempt is made to keep people 3 feet apart.

Children and adults who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks, according to the CDC.

However, these are all just suggestions.

There are no laws backing them up.

There is no federal mandate that anyone wear masks, that anyone prove their vaccination status or ANYTHING!

And as many parts of the world are battling new and more virulent strains of Covid-19 and some of the worst such as the Delta Variant are even beginning to show up on our shores, I want to know WHY.

Why is our government abrogating its responsibility to keep us safe?

It’s not like lawmakers aren’t already dedicated to protecting us in other ways.

The federal government has strict regulations to keep our foods and medicines safe. It has regulations to keep our motor vehicles and buildings safe. It even has specific regulations about which other vaccines children must have before they can enter the public school system.

Why is Covid-19 any different?

The government won’t let you drive without putting on a seat belt, it regulates your speed on the highway, and it won’t let you smoke a cigarette in a public place.

Why won’t it do the same kind of thing with Covid-19?

If the CDC is correct that unvaccinated people should wear masks in schools particularly in indoor and crowded settings, then our government should mandate we follow those guidelines.

Period.

“Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the Covid-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports,” the CDC said in a statement.

Unfortunately, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has been her own worst enemy often garbling the organization’s message to avoid controversy. For instance, she stressed that decisions on safety measures should be put in place locally.

This has often been interpreted as leaving room for fewer safety precautions.

But this goes against Walensky’s other statements that MORE RESTRICTIONS may be necessary, not less.

In areas with low vaccination rates, higher viral spread or with increasing cases of new strains of the virus, she has suggested universal masking and other measures.

Whether this miscommunication is a result of a cowardly Joe Biden administration or Walensky’s own fault, it has hurt the vaccination effort. Instead of meeting the goal of 70% of Americans fully vaccinated by the July 4th holiday, we’re stalled at nearly 50%.

If there were actual mandates about what vaccinated people were allowed to do and those mandates were enforced, it would probably incentivize more people to get the shots.

At very least we should mandate masks at every elementary school in the nation. After all, children 11 or younger aren’t even eligible for the vaccine because it hasn’t been cleared for that age group yet. No need to check medical records. Elementary schools will be filled with the unvaccinated.

But no. Nothing.

It’s not even like these new CDC guidelines are extreme.

They fall well short of safety guidance in other parts of the globe.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for all vaccinated people to continue to wear masks because of increased spread of variants of the virus.

The CDC isn’t going that far because of confidence that the vaccines being used in the US – the ones made by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson – are effective against new variants, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“We know from good studies that the Delta variant is protected against by the vaccines that fundamentally are being used here. And that’s the reason why the CDC feels at this point they should not change their recommendation,” he said.

If the CDC guidelines are sensible and moderate, why won’t the federal government enforce them?

The answer seems to be multifaceted.

First, the vaccine and even Covid-19, itself, have been politicized by the Republican Party.

At this summer’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), participants cheered low vaccination numbers. Though vaccinated, himself, the former President has continually used fear of the vaccine as a tool to rally support.

There may be reluctance among Democrats to let their own political agenda be derailed by bogus cries of tyranny at public safety measures. (Of course given that those efforts already seem to be mostly derailed by reluctance to override the filibuster, this hardly seems to matter.)

Another overriding concern throughout the pandemic has been the economy.

Governmental officials from the federal to the state to the local level have been unwilling to put safety concerns ahead of capitalism. Business interests have repeatedly been prioritized over protections for human life.

In short, keeping schools open to in-person learning is necessary to keep parents working at their jobs. So any safety precautions that could jeopardize keeping the schools open jeopardizes profits.

Without the federal government stepping in, the decision probably will fall to most local school districts.

And this is entirely unfair to school directors. They should not have to make these kinds of life and death decisions.

In most cases, I would expect they’ll pass the buck on to individual teachers, parents and students.

If you want to mask up, you can. If you don’t, you won’t have to do it.

This will make individuals essentially powerless to protect themselves from the virus since wearing a mask doesn’t provide much protection to the wearer – it mostly protects others from the wearer.

And as to 3 feet social distancing, that’s impossible in most school buildings so it will just be ignored.

Like last school year, people will unnecessarily catch the virus.

The question is how much this will affect the national picture.

With schools closed for the summer, infection rates are mostly down. However, that could change in late August and September as they reopen.

If enough people don’t get the vaccine, that increases the chances for new variants of the virus to come into existence. With enough time, they can become resistant to the vaccines we have.

On the other hand, the pandemic could be over.

I fervently hope it is.

I want my classroom to return to normal.

I want to continue to make it better than normal.

But without the government stepping in here, we’re all just engaged in a game of chicken.

A game of chicken with a pandemic.


 

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Stop Transforming US Schools into Prisons in the Name of Security

You probably heard about the Texas mom who became Internet famous for posing as her daughter in school last week.

Casey Garcia, 30, was arrested after she was caught attending her 7th grade daughter’s classes while disguised in a hoodie, a mask and thick black glasses.

In a viral video she posted to YouTube, she said the stunt was a “social experiment” to “prove a point.”

“We need better security at our schools,” Garcia said. “I kind of feel that I proved it.”

“There have been one too many mass shootings,” she added, arguing that schools should have metal detectors and possibly ban backpacks.

However, most schools already DO have metal detectors, and the presence of these devices won’t stop a parent like Garcia from posing as a teen during a pandemic when students are often required to cover their faces behind masks.

Hopefully sometime next school year when more teens are vaccinated and mask restrictions disappear, no one will be able to take advantage of pandemic safety precautions to sneak into classes.

Don’t get me wrong, teachers should have caught Garcia last week long before the end of the day, but the El Paso parent did more to prove the necessity of smaller class sizes than additional security.

You can pay millions of dollars on new complicated and time wasting screening processes to enter the building, or you can simply have teachers responsible for fewer kids so they can actually give them all more attention. It’s less costly and would reap educational benefits along with improving safety.

The fact is, we already spend an awful lot on school security. And often those measures and the costs to enact them directly impede teachers ability to teach and students willingness to learn.

Let’s start with cost.

The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. You’d expect that we could afford to buy BOTH security AND education for our students.

However, in practice, it doesn’t work that way.

To put it bluntly – we’re cheap. Especially when it comes to children.

Correction: Especially when it comes to OTHER PEOPLE’S children.

Right wing pundits love to quote exorbitant figures of how much the US spends per student as compared with the rest of the world.

However, they neglect to mention (1) this money is spent unevenly so that we spend much more on rich kids versus poor kids, and (2) we spend that money on services in this country that most other nations do not.

One of those things is security.

It’s not that schools in Europe and other comparable nations don’t concern themselves with keeping students safe. But they typically don’t have metal detectors, armed police, and high tech security systems. While secondary entrances and exits tend to be locked, main entrances usually remain open and unmonitored throughout the day.

Nor do they have the same dangers as we do. In the US, there are more firearms – roughly 400 million – than people. Not true in other countries.

Moreover, even in other nations like Switzerland where gun ownership is high, they have comprehensive background checks that make it much more difficult for criminals or the mentally ill to get a hold of a gun.

In the US, we have a large population that is racially diverse, a history of social strife, runaway income inequality, and a crumbling social safety net. All of which, when mixed together, are a recipe for conflict.

Not so in most other countries.

Moreover, the way most European nations, for example, have addressed safety is completely opposite to the way we do it in the US.

School shootings were on the rise in Europe in the early 2000s, but instead of buying security systems to stop shooters from entering the building, most schools focused on prevention. They realized that the overwhelming majority of shooters were not interlopers from outside but were disgruntled students. So these schools invested in more psychologists, social workers and resources to help children navigate the turmoil of growing up. The result was an almost complete disappearance of shootings.

If you ask me, a similar investment in the US would have similar success. However, given the differences in our societies, I don’t expect it would solve all of our problems.

In fact, emphasis on security certainly hasn’t.

Since 2012, US schools spending on high tech security programs has increased by at least $3 billion – not counting the billions more spent on armed campus police officers — with very little research proving these measures are at all effective, according to the Washington Post.

In fact, there is evidence that these measures don’t work. A federally funded 2016 study by Johns Hopkins University, for instance, concluded there was “limited and conflicting evidence in the literature on the short- and long-term effectiveness of school safety technology.”

But in the United States, when there’s an entire industry lobbying to take advantage of a crisis, that industry will likely be seen as the solution. It might not actually work, but at least huge corporations are making a profit. That’s often enough to justify spending more and more.

Security firms tout their products as the solution just as hammers scream we need more nails. Never mind that buying them will impede our progress and bankrupt us in the process.

Which brings me to education.

Even if heightened security was 100% effective against violence, it has a negative impact on learning.

No one wants to go to a prison for school.

Prisons are not welcoming environments. Children don’t want armed guards watching their every move. They want empathetic teachers and adults to help them understand their world.

This is especially true for low income and students of color. There is already a tendency among white faculty (and others) to criminalize their behaviors. In a punitive environment, this is even more so. Children become not something precious to be protected but the inmates, themselves, whose adolescent behaviors become the excuse for treating them like suspects and criminals.

Even preparing for violent situations can have negative impacts.

Active shooter drills – especially those from the ALICE Training Institute — do more to traumatize students than make them safer. The increasingly popular ALICE program teaches kids to physically confront gunmen under any circumstances. Consultants, school psychologists, safety experts and parents say this is dangerous and irresponsible.

“There is no research/evidence . . . that teaching students to attack a shooter is either effective or safe,” Katherine C. Cowan, spokeswoman for the National Association of School Psychologists, says. “It presumes an ability to transform psychologically from a frightened kid to an attacker in the moment of crisis, the ability to successfully execute the attack on the shooter (e.g., hit the shooter with the book or rock, knock them down, etc.) again in a crisis situation, the ability to not accidentally hurt a classmate, the reality that unsuccessfully going on the attack might make that student a more likely target of the shooter.”

However, the feeling that we are doing SOMETHING that we are at least preparing for a crisis is what keeps programs like this viable.

It’s also why Home Depot and Walmart market $150 bulletproof backpacks to parents. They may not actually help in a real life emergency, but they give the illusion of safety.

That’s what most of this really is – an illusion.

The fact is that the risk of being the victim of gun violence is low.  There are more credible risks traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease or suffering a life-threatening injury playing interscholastic sports. But we rarely worry about those.

Moreover, the risk of being a victim of gun violence is the same in the US whether you’re in school or not. And it’s higher in this country than in most others. A 2016 study in the American Journal of Medicine found that, among high-income nations, 91 percent of children younger than 15 who were killed by guns lived in the United States. Schools cannot solve that problem. We need sensible gun regulations and background checks in combination with measures for universal healthcare, racial equity and a reduction in income inequality.

However, our public schools are so often left to solve the problems our policymakers refuse to tackle.

If our teachers and administrators weren’t tasked with such a heavy burden and were actually given the funding and support they needed, perhaps they could better do the job of educating students.

That is the central purpose of public schools, after all.

Not gratifying parents to make points on the internet.

Not even security or profiting huge corporations.

It’s to teach kids.

We’d do best to remember that.


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!