Area schools are reluctant to put mask mandates and other COVID mitigation measures back in place, despite rising COVID rates and abundant evidence that masking reduces the spread of COVID. According to news accounts, and personal communication I have had with Baltimore County officials, one of the main reasons for this reluctance is “pushback” from those opposed to a mask mandate, like the protests in August, before school opened, in Baltimore County and in neighboring counties. And no doubt, there have been many other complaints.
But why do these protests carry the day, when on the other side is the health and safety of our community and, in particular, the most vulnerable among us?
We know that masks protect others more than they protect the wearers, and they are most effective when worn by infected people, Yet, this issue has been framed as one of personal freedom, clearly prioritizing the preferences of the individual over the greater good.
Opponents of mask mandates argue that most COVID cases in children are mild, which is, of course, true, when compared to adults, but as University of Maryland pediatrician James Campbell pointed out on WYPR’s On the Record on last week, about 1,000 kids have died of COVID in the U.S., which is 1,000 too many and puts COVID in the top 10 of leading causes of death among children. And, of course, children who become infected with COVID can pass it along to children who themselves might be at high risk, or to their immunocompromised or high-risk family members, and to siblings who are too young to be vaccinated — not to mention teachers and other staff who may themselves be at high risk or have very young children.
These situations are not rare. A 2021 study found that three quarters of American adults are at risk of severe illness from COVID, when considering factors such as diabetes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma and taking immunosuppressive agents. Thus, arguments like “they’re all young and healthy,” are not accurate in the vast majority of situations, particularly when considering family members of any group of people — such as a classroom full of students.
In the fall of 2021, a fellow Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) parent and I wrote a letter suggesting several increased COVID mitigation measures in county schools, including safer settings for lunch and asymptomatic testing, citing science-based guidance. We obtained 62 signatures from parents, students and other concerned residents, and sent the petition to the superintendent and all members of the school board, among others. We did eventually receive a thoughtful response from the community superintendent for the central zone, but no changes were made.
Why? Why does “pushback” lead to change, while what we might call “push forward” (i.e., working to advance the health of our community based on scientific evidence) does not? Is it because the anti-COVID-mitigation parents were louder and more disruptive and attracted media attention, whereas letters can be more easily ignored?
It appears as though being less respectful and more disruptive is more effective when it comes to influencing BCPS policy — more effective than letters and science. I don’t expect this is what BCPS wants to be teaching our children. The research suggesting that masks decrease the spread of COVID is robust. In ignoring that reality and leaving masks optional (even if “strongly recommended”), educational institutions are essentially communicating to students and to the entire community that they ignore science in favor of what appears to be popular opinion — especially when those protesting are forceful and disruptive. Further, schools are aligning themselves with the broader cultural messages that our most vulnerable members of society don’t matter or are not our problem. In addition to the public health risks of resisting COVID mitigation efforts, are these the messages we want to send our children?
Dara Friedman-Wheeler (email@example.com) is a Baltimore County Public Schools parent and a clinical psychologist.