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Mask Mess Makes Re-Opening a Nightmare for Public Schools

July 28, 2021

If anything, the recent Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss and Moriah Balingit UNDERSTATES the train wreck that will occur in schools across the nation as local boards wrestle with conflicting messages from State legislatures, Governors, medical experts, and the CDC. My heart aches for the School Board members and Superintendents who will have to unsnarl the mess created by former President Donald Trump, for it was his complete and total lack of federal leadership on this issue that brought us to where we are now. And where are we? 

In nine states where GOP governors have forbidden schools from mandating masks. 

In other states, including New Hampshire and to a lesser degree, Vermont, Governors of both parties have delegated the decision to the school districts resulting in disjointed and idiosyncratic regulations and programming in schools. In doing so, the Governors have followed the lead of the former President, giving epidemiologists the floor at public forums but failing to develop and implement mandates based on their advice. This had the effect of undercutting medical science. When a non-partisan expert like Dr. Fauci delivered news that was politically unacceptable to the former President, he sidelined him and replaced his medical recommendations with home remedies. Unsurprisingly, GOP leaders who wanted to curry favor with the President followed his lead. Like the President, they minimized the impact of the disease, tried to focus the public’s attention to the source of the disease, and spoke about the “overreach” implicit in mandating the mask-wearing and social distancing. 

The decision of the federal and state governments to decentralize decision-making regarding the actions needed to mitigate COVID had a happy by-product for them: it meant that they could sidestep the vitriolic pushback from anti-vaxxers and ultra-libertarians leaving those heated debates to local governments and school boards. Unsurprisingly, the result was a chaotic and unsystematic political response to a disease that didn’t care whether an individual was a Democrat, Republican, or Independent. 

As schools open in the coming weeks, school board members and superintendents will likely find themselves consumed in THIS debate instead of focussing on educational issues. As Ms. Strauss and Balingit reported, 

Paul Imhoff, superintendent of the Upper Arlington Schools district in Ohio and president of the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, lamented that the debate over how to control the coronavirus had become fraught with politics, complicating even the most straightforward measures, such as mask requirements.

“A mask mandate sounds easy, but on the ground how do you actually enforce that? These are questions we are left to grapple with, school district to school district to school district,” Imhoff said. “It’s very political. What we want to do is educate kids. We want to focus on learning loss, the well-being of kids and the things they went through during the pandemic. Instead, we are being forced to focus on this.”

The mask mandate issue is a classic lose-lose proposition for local governments and school boards. But voters should realize that the only reason the bulls-eye is on local officials is that the GOP leaders are operating on their conviction that their levels government cannot address this complicated problem…. or stated more bluntly, they are afraid to take a position supporting science when they realize that the voters who selected them to run for office do not want to hear of any “loss of liberty” that is implicit in putting on a mask or listening to an authority figure other than a former reality show host who is the only person who can solve a problem. 

And here is the ultimate irony. Had President President Trump sought bi-partisan support to implement the universal preventative measures recommended by experts at the beginning of this outbreak it is possible that the disease could have been brought under control earlier… say by October of 2020. Had that been the case, voters would have had no questions about how he managed the pandemic and he would, in all probability, been re-elected. If that alternative sequence of events happened, President Trump would now be comfortable requiring us to mask up again to push back against this variant and those wishing to curry his favor would fully support his efforts.

Oh, and one more result: the public’s trust in science would be higher than ever as would it’s faith in the government to solve complicated problems. 


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