One of the many tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic, wholly separate from the terrible toll it has taken on peoples’ lives and health, is the degree to which millions of Americans have willingly allowed themselves to be pitted against their neighbors, mostly as a result of amoral, deceptive, and self-serving propaganda churned out by the Republican Party. Nowhere has this capitulation to cynical GOP opportunism been more obvious than in the contrived battle over masking in our nation’s public schools.
The fact that elected Republicans in nearly every state have knowingly allowed this “debate” to metastasize in the hopes of gaining some political advantage from it has made it next to impossible to contain the pandemic as it spreads through the population of 50 million or so still-unvaccinated children under the age of 12. Taking their cues from these politicians and their reinforcing media, parents have dutifully engaged in highly publicized, vitriolic, demonstrative efforts to prevent local school officials from imposing simple, protective masking requirements universally recommended by medical doctors and scientific experts to contain the virus. Because school boards are often beholden to the same political dogma their local population is fed, the spewing of manufactured outrage and grievance by irate, propagandized parents has prompted many officials to abandon such measures altogether, often against their own better judgment and the advice of public health officials.
Some of these officials have decided to tread a seeming middle path, allowing parents who are otherwise unwilling to send their children to school with a mask the option to “opt out” of any mask requirements. Of course, the result of that dodging of their responsibility is twofold: The pandemic continues to spread unabated among those children who remain unmasked, and parents who still want to mask their children in areas where denial of the virus is strong are treated as pariahs, berated, or otherwise vilified by their neighbors who’ve had their own beliefs validated by these officials.
Even in those areas with the loudest and most ignorant confluences of parents and state officials, however, there are pockets—sometimes large pockets—of dissent from this embrace of ignorance and disinformation. One parent in Chattanooga, Tennessee, disgusted with her own school district’s opt-out policy, vented her frustration this week on Facebook. Her post, which has since gone viral, captures the hypocrisy being peddled by Republicans in their opposition to mask-wearing as well as any medical critique ever could.
As reported by Sydney Page, writing for The Washington Post’s sister publication, The Lily:
Last week, Tennessee’s Hamilton County School District announced that masks will be mandatory for students and staff, with one key caveat: Students whose parents complete an opt-out form will be exempt from the policy. The district was ahead of the curve; on Tuesday, Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed an executive order that extended that option to all parents in the state.
The problem, of course, is that allowing children (or their parents) to opt out of protecting against a public health menace like the COVID-19 delta variant effectively washes the district’s hands of responsibility when one of those kids (or his/her parents) contracts the virus. It also does nothing affirmatively to contain the spread of the virus. In other words, it’s a cop-out, and a craven one at that.
An East Hamilton school district mom (identified only as “Wendy” in the article to protect her privacy) took to Facebook with the following response, pointing out the hypocrisy of allowing children to opt out of masking. She pointedly asks for the school’s opt-out form for its dress code:
“As the parent of a daughter at East Hamilton, I find the school’s dress code policy to be misogynistic and detrimental to the self-esteem of young women,” the Aug. 11 email read. “… In light of the opt-out option related to the recently announced mask mandate, I can only assume that parents are now in a position to pick and choose the school policies to which their child to be subject. ... I therefore intend to ... send my daughter to school in spaghetti straps, leggings, cut offs, and anything else she feels comfortable wearing to school.”
Her full email, which was obtained and reposted on Twitter by the Tennessee Holler, is below:
Her point is this: The school district is so unconcerned about the spread of a deadly and debilitating virus that it allows parents to opt their children out of the only effective measures to prevent its spread. Yet it has no qualms about imposing similar mandates—with no allowance for opting out— governing how the same children come dressed for school. Which is more important? And at what time do the misguided and misinformed beliefs of individual parents about protecting themselves and others take a back seat to the good of the community?
As Page writes:
The primary purpose of the email was to underscore the inconsistency of the new mask policy — and the potentially grave ramifications of allowing parents and students to reject it, particularly amid the mounting covid-19 caseload in the state, Wendy said.
Or as another East Hamilton parent interviewed for Page’s article put it: “It’s just mind-boggling that we can arbitrarily choose these silly dress code rules and then take a lifesaving health protection tool and make it optional.”
As reported by Katherine Wu writing for The Atlantic, nearly one-fifth of all new COVID-19 infections in this country are now occurring in unvaccinated young children. As Wu explains, the extremely transmissible delta variant of the virus is driving this surge over the last few months. As a result, pediatric and children’s hospital ICU units in several states are being filled to capacity, with more and more serious cases reported: “In several states, health workers say that kids—many of them previously completely healthy—are coming in sicker and deteriorating faster than ever before, with no obvious end in sight.”
There is no “end in sight” because parents who want their younger children to go to school are now forced to cope not only with the virus but with the selfishness and ignorance of fellow parents, which is encouraged by officials whose sole intent appears to be escape the responsibility they were elected to uphold.