Mask Wars and Quarantines Stymie School Reopenings

By: - August 19, 2021 12:00 am

A father hugs his fourth grade son in front of his elementary school in Richardson, Texas. Local school boards in Texas and elsewhere are requiring all students and employees in K-12 schools to wear masks, despite state laws and governors’ orders to the contrary. LM Otero/The Associated Press

The first day of middle school gives almost all kids the jitters. But for Colette Hanna, who started sixth grade Wednesday at Camp Road Middle School in Charleston, South Carolina, knowing that her school district decided at the last minute to require everyone to wear a mask was reassuring.

“I was already planning to wear a mask to protect me and other people because I’m not vaccinated, I’m only 11,” Colette said. “It wasn’t a big deal to me that other people might not be wearing masks. But this is better. I’m pretty happy about it because now everyone will be protected.”

Colette has cystic fibrosis, which makes her more vulnerable to COVID-19, so she and her family have worn masks throughout the pandemic. Her mom, Mandy Kreptowski, said her daughter is comfortable wearing a mask.

But the mom added she had been worried that Colette could have felt judged if she were one of the only ones wearing a mask on the first day of school.

The Charleston County School Board voted Monday, two days before school started, to require all K-12 students and teachers to wear masks despite a state law forbidding schools from spending state money on enforcing mask mandates.

The county’s decision follows a similar one earlier this month by the mayor and city council of Columbia, the state capital. And Richland County, which surrounds Columbia, this week approved an ordinance requiring students and teachers of children ages 2 through 14 in public and private schools and day care centers to wear masks.

But the Charleston City Council failed to pass a similar measure after a vocal group of constituents at a public hearing called on the city not to implement a mandate.

Colette and many other middle schoolers may not think wearing a mask is a big deal, though many doctors and public health officials consider it crucial. But for parents and elected officials in South Carolina and elsewhere, the subject has become a political flashpoint.

Defying Republican governors and legislators, a growing number of school districts are instituting mask mandates for students and teachers. They have done so despite GOP threats to cut state funding or dock school officials’ pay and an intense backlash from anti-mask parents, who have shown up in force at public meetings.

Two counties in Texas did the same as Charleston County, contradicting an executive order from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott that banned mask mandates. A lower court upheld the counties’ mask mandates, but over the weekend, the state’s Supreme Court temporarily decided in the governor’s favor.

Several large Florida counties also have contradicted Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and, at the risk of losing state funding, required masks in K-12 schools.

Similar battles are playing out throughout the country, even as schools begin to welcome back students.

More Sick Kids

Dr. David Dowdy, an associate professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said it’s still true that children are significantly less likely to get sick and die of COVID-19 than adults.

As of Aug. 12, 0.9% of children with COVID-19 have been hospitalized, and 0.01% of child cases have resulted in death, according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. However, cases among children increased 5% in the first half of August, according to the report.

At this stage in the pandemic, an increasing number of children are being hospitalized and dying from COVID-19, because they’re the ones who aren’t vaccinated, Dowdy said.

Children ages 12 to 17 are now eligible for a COVID-19 shot, but so far, only 49% have received at least one dose, compared with 70% of American adults and 90% of people 65 and older. For children under 12, vaccines are not yet available.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends universal masking in schools for all children two and older. The medical organization explained that requiring everyone, vaccinated or not, to wear a mask “is the best and most effective strategy to create consistent messages, expectations, enforcement and compliance without the added burden of needing to monitor vaccination status.”

Dowdy and other public health experts insist that a layered prevention strategy that includes mask wearing; vaccinations; social distancing, contact tracing and quarantining; improved ventilation; and disinfecting and hand washing can make schools safe enough for kids to get back into classrooms and make up for valuable time lost during last year’s shutdowns.

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.