The ongoing boondoggle over whether to allow schools to enforce masks is among the most thoughtless and disheartening debates I’ve encountered in my years of public service. Seldom has the right choice been so painfully obvious yet fervently avoided.
It’s simple. Our schools need all the tools and resources at their disposal to protect our children from COVID-19. By barring them from requiring masks, we have taken away one of the most effective tools we know of to keep children safe.
A year ago, the impact of COVID-19 on children was relatively modest compared to older individuals and those with pre-existing health conditions. That is no longer the case. Children now account for 15-20% of weekly new COVID-19 cases in the United States. In Arkansas, 19% of active COVID-19 cases are children. Between April and July of this year, there has been a 517% increase in the number of cases in children under 18. For children under 12, that increase is 690%. There has been a 270% increase in the hospitalization of those under 18, and ICU admissions are up 275% since April with 20% of those cases being children under 12. In July, children under 10 represented the highest increase in COVID-19 cases out of any age group.
And those aren’t national numbers. Those are Arkansas children. Potentially your children, your neighbors’ children, your nieces and nephews. Arkansas Children’s Hospital is full of children sick with this virus, and we recently recorded our first pediatric death. Unless we change course quickly, there will almost certainly be more.
There are perhaps four common threads to the arguments presented by those who opposing masks. One of them includes the effectiveness of masks. Put plainly, masks work. Not all masks are created equal, and not all masks are 100% effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, but all masks provide more protection than no masks.
Face masks create a barrier that reduces the spray of a person's spit and respiratory droplets. These droplets play a key role in the spread of COVID-19 because they can carry SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Studies have shown, repeatedly, that individuals are much less likely to contract the virus when wearing a mask. The risk of spreading the virus decreases significantly when others around them is wearing a mask. Additionally, a study released this spring demonstrated that COVID-19 incidences were reduced significantly when teachers and staff in schools wore masks, as well.
So, as for the effectiveness of wearing masks, there is no debate. The matter is settled. Masks work.
Another common retort I’ve hear from those opposed to masks is the idea that having to wear a mask in school will somehow harm a child socially and psychologically. A child can’t see expression. A mask is uncomfortable for a child. They won’t develop properly. While I can’t speak to those opinions from scientific approach, I can say that the alternatives are much worse.
Without mask enforcement, schools will shut down again. We’re seeing COVID cases in children skyrocket now, while school is just starting is many places. The number of cases, hospitalizations, and even deaths will certainly increase as more children return to class. And as a result, there will be more quarantines, like we’re seeing in Marion, where hundreds of children are being forced to stay home. We will see a return to remote learning, which we have learned to be less effective than in-person instruction. All in all, as the spread worsens, more children will be in isolation, losing ground on their education. I would argue that quarantines and trailing their peers in other states academically will have a harsher impact on a child’s social and emotional wellbeing than having to wear a mask. And intubation is probably more uncomfortable, too.
And then there are those who have suggested that children should get the virus in order to protect themselves from it. That is perhaps the most heinously misinformed, willfully ignorant, or just plain calloused retort to mask enforcement we have heard. Our healthcare system and children’s hospitals are already being pushed to the brink and it’s the first week of August. This dangerous logic (or lack thereof) suggests its better we risk the health and lives of Arkansas children than have them wear a mask. Does that mean compromised children are expendable? Are we willing to experiment with the lives of children in order to keep some sort of partisan footing? The suggestion is repugnant and shouldn’t even be entertained by reasonable people.
Over the last few days, I have received calls from Arkansans from both sides of the issue. For those opposed to masks, I can easily cite research and directives from every major, reputable medical organization that demonstrate the effectiveness of wearing masks. We can disagree on matters of opinion. But we cannot completely reinterpret facts to support those opinions. We may chuckle when others doubt whether the earth is round, men landed on the moon or that Elvis is dead and not living in a motel in Indiana. But we are dealing with a pandemic that is killing friends and neighbors every day. It’s no laughing matter, and the medical opinions of YouTubers and soccer moms is not on equal footing to that of countless medical professionals.
The callers whom I have no answer for are those asking how they can protect their children, especially those parents of children with compromised immune systems. The other common thread among those who oppose masks dig in their heels on the matter of their rights. They claim they have the right to do as they wish when it comes to their health and the health of their children, are others not afforded the same right to not to be infected by those who refuse to mask or vaccinate? And what of those with loved ones who can’t even get into a hospital because it is full of COVID-19 patients or the parents of sick children waiting outside the Children’s Hospital for an available bed? Does one’s so-called right to refuse a mask trump another’s right to avoid illness or seek medical care?
Yes, we are entitled to certain rights. But our rights do not negate our responsibilities. We don’t have the right to put others in danger. We do not have the right to unfettered personal freedom, as outlined in the Supreme Court decision Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905).
Act 1002 is a thoughtless, fundamentally flawed law that robs our communities and our schools from being able best protect our children. Its exemptions make the application of the law irrational, giving prisoners on death row more protection from COVID-19 than our elementary school students. The proposed adjustments to the legislation don’t do enough. Why would we wait until a school district is completely overrun with COVID and quarantines before we give them the tools to protect students?
Is political expedience more important than the lives of even a few children? I understand that there will be constituencies, misinformed by the partisan conditioning, calling on my colleagues to maintain the ban on masks. We are all hearing it, seeing it, experiencing it. But it’s critical, in a time like this, that we have the courage to do what’s right and not what is easy. We must give our schools the ability to protect our children.