Masks for kids? Schools con­front the ri­val pol­i­tics of re­open­ing

Merced Sun-Star - - Front Page - BY JO­CE­LYN GECKER

On one side are par­ents say­ing, let kids be kids. They ob­ject to masks and so­cial dis­tanc­ing in class­rooms this fall – ar­gu­ing both could hurt their chil­dren’s well-be­ing – and want schools to re­open full time.

On the other side are par­ents and teach­ers who call for safe­guards that would have been unimag­in­able be­fore the coro­n­avirus pan­demic: part-time school, face cov­er­ings for all or a fully on­line cur­ricu­lum.

The im­pas­sioned tug-of-wars have put ed­u­ca­tors in the mid­dle of an in­creas­ingly politi­cized de­bate on how best to re­open schools this fall, a daunt­ing chal­lenge as in­fec­tions spike in the U.S.

“Don’t tell me my kid has to wear a mask,” said Kim Sher­man, a mother of three in the cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia city of Clo­vis who de­scribes her­self as very con­ser­va­tive and very pro­Trump. “I don’t need to be dic­tated to to tell me how best to raise my kids.”

With many dis­tricts still fi­nal­iz­ing how they may re­open, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has ramped up pres­sure to get pub­lic schools back in busi­ness, threat­en­ing to with­hold fed­eral fund­ing from those that don’t re­sume in-per­son classes. With­out ev­i­dence, he’s ac­cused Democrats of want­ing schools closed be­cause of pol­i­tics, not health.

Sim­i­lar mud­sling­ing is hap­pen­ing at school board meet­ings, in neigh­bors’ so­cial me­dia clashes and in on­line pe­ti­tions.

Some par­ents have threat­ened to pull their chil­dren – and the fund­ing they pro­vide – if masks are re­quired.

Hil­lary Sal­way, a mother of three in Orange County, Cal­i­for­nia, is part of a vo­cal mi­nor­ity call­ing for schools to fully open with “nor­mal so­cial in­ter­ac­tion.” If the dis­trict re­quires masks for her son’s kinder­garten class, she says, “I don’t know if my son will be start­ing his ed­u­ca­tional ca­reer in the pub­lic school sys­tem this fall.”

She wants him to feel free to hug his teacher and friends and can’t imag­ine send­ing him to a school where he’ll get rep­ri­manded for shar­ing a toy. She started a pe­ti­tion last month urg­ing her dis­trict to “keep fa­cial ex­pres­sions vis­ually avail­able“and helped or­ga­nize a protest of over 100 peo­ple out­side the dis­trict of­fice, with signs say­ing, “No to masks, Yes to re­cess,” and “Let me

breathe.”

Dozens have echoed her be­liefs at Orange County Board of Ed­u­ca­tion meet­ings, where the five-mem­ber elected body is ma­jor­ity Repub­li­can and is rec­om­mend­ing a full re­turn to school with­out masks or so­cial dis­tanc­ing. The board makes rec­om­men­da­tions but not pol­icy, and its sup­port­ers ar­gue that face cov­er­ings are in­ef­fec­tive, give a false sense of se­cu­rity and are po­ten­tially detri­men­tal.

The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion says masks may help pre­vent in­fected peo­ple from spread­ing the virus to oth­ers and urged stu­dents and teach­ers to wear them when­ever fea­si­ble. Demo­cratic Gov. Gavin New­som has or­dered Cal­i­for­ni­ans to wear them in pub­lic.

Brooke As­ton Harper, a lib­eral par­ent who at­tended a par­tic­u­larly spir­ited board meet­ing re­cently, said it was “hor­ri­fy­ing” that speak­ers were “im­pos­ing their small world­view on all of us.”

She also started a pe­ti­tion, call­ing on schools to fol­low state guide­lines that in­clude masks for teach­ers and stu­dents, con­stant so­cial dis­tanc­ing on cam­puses and other mea­sures.

Many par­ents, ed­u­ca­tors and doc­tors agree that the so­cial, ed­u­ca­tional and emo­tional costs to chil­dren of a long shut­down may out­weigh the risk of the virus it­self, even if they don’t agree on how to re­open safely. The Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics has is­sued guide­lines sup­port­ing in-per­son school to avoid so­cial iso­la­tion and de­pres­sion in stu­dents. But it said sci­ence, not pol­i­tics, must guide de­ci­sions where COVID-19 is spread­ing.

While chil­dren have proven to be less sus­cep­ti­ble to the virus, teach­ers are vul­ner­a­ble. And many are scared.

“I will be wear­ing a mask, a face shield, pos­si­bly gloves, and I’m even con­sid­er­ing get­ting some type of body cov­er­ing to wear,” says Stacey Pugh, a fifth-grade teacher in sub­ur­ban Hous­ton.

“Come the fall, we’re go­ing to be the front-line work­ers,” said Pugh, whose two chil­dren will do dis­tance learn­ing with her re­tired fa­ther.

In Texas, a virus hot spot, Repub­li­can Gov. Greg Ab­bott and ed­u­ca­tion lead­ers say it’s safe to re­open schools in Au­gust. Dis­tricts must of­fer re­mote learn­ing for stu­dents who opt to stay home, but the state didn’t is­sue safety guide­lines, call­ing masks a lo­cal de­ci­sion.

The Texas Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers and other unions have de­manded clear guide­lines.

“Texas AFT says a big ‘hell no’ to what looks like a re­turn to nor­mal in Au­gust,” pres­i­dent Zeph Capo said. “We won’t sac­ri­fice our mem­bers and stu­dents for pol­i­tics.”

The coun­try’s two largest school dis­tricts, New York City and Los Angeles, say schools can­not fully re­open in the lib­eral ci­ties.

While New York City of­fi­cials say schools will likely com­bine in-per­son and dis­tance learn­ing, the Los Angeles school dis­trict an­nounced Mon­day that its stu­dents will start the term with on­line classes from home. Other Cal­i­for­nia ci­ties, in­clud­ing San Diego and Oakland, also say their cam­puses will stay closed.

“A 10-year-old stu­dent might have a 30-year-old teacher a 50-year-old bus driver or live with a 70year-old grand­mother. All need to be pro­tected,” LA Su­per­in­ten­dent Austin Beut­ner said. “There is a pub­lic health im­per­a­tive to keep schools from be­com­ing a petri dish.”

Be­sides masks, the

CDC has rec­om­mended schools spread out desks, stag­ger sched­ules, have meals in class­rooms in­stead of the cafe­te­ria and add phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers between bath­room sinks.

Many small, ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties ar­gue they shouldn’t have to com­ply with the same rules as big ci­ties, where in­fec­tion rates are higher.

Craig Guensler, su­per­in­ten­dent of a small dis­trict in Cal­i­for­nia’s mostly ru­ral Yuba County, says of­fi­cials will try to fol­low state man­dates. They have spent $25,000 on what he calls “spit guards, for lack of a bet­ter term” – clear Plex­i­glas di­viders to sep­a­rate desks – at Wheat­land Uni­fied School Dis­trict’s four schools.

Eighty-five per­cent of par­ents said in a sur­vey they want their kids in school full time. Of­fi­cials will space out desks as much as pos­si­ble but still ex­pect up to 28 in each class­room, Guensler said. Many par­ents are adamant their chil­dren not wear masks, and he sus­pects they will find loop­holes if Cal­i­for­nia re­quires them.

“Our ex­pec­ta­tion is we’re go­ing to get pum­meled with pe­di­a­tri­cians writ­ing notes, say­ing, ‘My child can’t wear a mask,’“he said.

ASH­LEY LAN­DIS AP

Hil­lary Sal­way, fifth from left, poses for a photo with her chil­dren, her friends and their chil­dren Mon­day in San Cle­mente, Calif. Sal­way wants to send her chil­dren back to school in the fall.

DAVID J. PHILLIP AP

Stacey Pugh, a par­ent and teacher in sub­ur­ban Hous­ton, feels that she will be vul­ner­a­ble to the coro­n­avirus when schools re­open. “I will be wear­ing a mask, a face shield, pos­si­bly gloves, and I’m even con­sid­er­ing get­ting some type of body cov­er­ing to wear,” she says.

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