The delta variant has fundamentally shifted the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just ask any medical frontline worker in Maryland or elsewhere. Positivity rates are up. Hospitalizations have likewise increased. The highly-contagious variant has done this even as more people are fully vaccinated. It’s gotten to the point that hospitals worry about capacity, especially in states to the south. In Maryland, employers are delaying return to workplace decisions, some businesses are choosing to mandate vaccinations and local governments are reinstituting indoor mask requirements. It’s become obvious that COVID has not yet been defeated and that vaccinations blunt, but do not fully prevent spread of the delta variant.
Given all that, the impending arrival of students to the classroom as early as Aug. 30 (and teachers and school-based staff even sooner), it ought to be clear that reasonable precautions should be taken. Best practices include vaccinating all the adults in the building, regular testing, upgraded school ventilation and a requirement that everyone wear a mask. Yet it’s this last detail that has proven most controversial. Half of Maryland’s two dozen K-12 public school systems have chosen to make masks optional for students this fall including one in the Baltimore area, Carroll County. Given the Maryland Department of Education’s support for masking, this is more than mildly disappointing. And to make matters worse, it appears the county is looking elsewhere for its tough decision-making with Carroll school board member Donna Sivigny suggesting at a recent board meeting that a mask mandate ought to be left to Gov. Larry Hogan.
Since the governor has made it clear he would leave such decisions to local school boards, this would appear to be a classic case of passing the buck — at least until someone notices that nobody is taking responsibility.
The science on this is well established. There is a legitimate need to get students back in the classroom given the inadequacies of virtual learning. The risk posed by COVID to students is not as great as to adults but it is far from harm-free. An estimated 400 children have died from COVID-19 in the United States and children under 12 remain ineligible for the vaccines. And how many will bring the virus from the classroom into their homes where family members may face far greater health risk? Wearing a mask, on the other hand, does not pose risk. Yet there are some parents who will scream and shout and tear at their hair over a mask mandate — such as those who jeered and yelled at Monday night’s Harford County Board of Education meeting and had to be escorted from the meeting room. And there are some school systems that will capitulate to the loudest voices.
Certainly, it’s no fun having to say no. Elected officials hate it. They’re much happier playing to the crowds. But at some point, difficult choices must be made. It would surely be better if Governor Hogan had adopted a statewide mask mandate. That would represent real leadership, particularly given how some of the loudest critics of science-based public health policy come from his side of the political aisle. But he has increasingly shied away from tough COVID-related decision-making. We hold little hope, for example, that he will extend the moratorium on evictions just as he declined to maintain Maryland’s COVID state of emergency beyond its Sunday expiration despite the objections offered last week by top state lawmakers. One of the consequences of that decision: It’s fuel to the fire of conspiracy-minded mask protesters who think the pandemic is over.
Of course, we hope that parents in Carroll County and elsewhere will send their children to school with masks despite the lack of a mandate. That is the responsible choice. But to rely on voluntary compliance alone is wildly optimistic. Just consider the plight of youngsters and their families in states like Florida and Texas where mask mandates have been banned outright. We know from past experience in Maryland that some people will not choose to heed the advice of experts like Carroll County health officer Ed Singer or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And that is how a public health emergency drags on. Millions of Americans will continue to refuse the vaccine. Others will continue to decline precautions like masks or social distancing. New variants will arise as herd immunity is not achieved. And we will be left to ponder why we could not simply follow medical advice and act in our own (and our children’s) best interests.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.