Gloves Are Off on School Mask Mandates
With the exponentially more infectious Delta variant threatening unvaccinated kids and GOP legislators fighting against mask mandates in the classrooms, prepare for all-out wars at school-board meetings between conservatives and people trying to protect their kids.
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In recent years, most ugly battles at school boards have been fairly one-sided. On the one hand, you typically have irate, hyperbolic conservative parents screaming at school-board members over the imaginary problem du jour, whether it is sex education, transgender students in bathrooms, transgender athletes, critical race theory, or mask mandates. On the other are beleaguered school-board members humoring the people ranting about things of which they have no real knowledge.
What there appears to be far less of is the voices of leftists and moderates because most people don’t weigh in on subjects that don’t directly affect them. So, if they don’t have a trans kid, for example, they likely won’t feel that strongly about it and therefore aren’t going to fight the fight. And it’s hard for sane parents to get upset about a subject like critical race theory, which simply isn’t taught in K-12 schools, despite what FOX will have you believe.
This also went for mask mandates for many families whose kids attended school virtually, since COVID was unlikely to infect their children or make them severely ill. But this is about to change because of the Delta variant of COVID.
A recent study of an outbreak in Massachusetts showed that vaccinated individuals can asymptomatically spread the Delta variant. Additionally, last week, a briefing from the CDC was leaked, revealing their belief that Delta is more infectious than previously thought. R0 (pronounced R-naught) is a measure of how infectious a disease is. It tells you the average number of people who will catch a contagious disease from a single host if precautions aren’t taken. Fortunately, the Pfizer vaccine remains about 88 percent effective at preventing infection and ensuring that breakthrough infections are very unlikely to result in hospitalization or death.
To put that in perspective: If a person caught the original variant of COVID, and no one was taking precautions, on average they would infect roughly 2.3 other people, resulting in a R0 of 2.3. In a change from previous estimates that thought Delta had an R0 of 5 to 8, CDC now believes the Delta variant R0 is on a par with chicken pox (which has an R0 between 8 and 9) and is worse than rubella or smallpox (R0 of ~6). It’s so bad, the CDC briefing warns that “it acts almost like a different novel virus, leaping from target to target more swiftly than Ebola or the common cold.” As a result, the U.S. is now in its second largest wave of the pandemic, behind only the brutal winter of 2020-2021.
The CDC is also indicating that the Delta variant may cause more serious symptoms. Anecdotally, doctors are seeing patients getting sicker, faster. They’re also seeing far more patients in their 30s and 40s than they did with previous waves.
They’re also seeing far more children with COVID, and those kids appear to be sicker as well. A July summer camp in Galveston, Texas, resulted in 157 children contracting COVID. Throughout the South, where the vast majority of people are unvaccinated, hospitals are seeing record numbers of children—and though deaths among young patients remain rare, they are not unheard of. Mississippi has seen four children die of COVID in just the past week.
A senior official at the CDC who is reviewing the initial data told DAME, “In areas and places where large groups are unvaccinated, the number of children under age 12 being infected with the Delta variant has escalated. The available data shows the children who are infected with Delta have the same likelihood of suffering severe complications as adults.” The official also expressed dismay over the politicization of masks in schools and bans on mask mandates in states like Texas and Florida.
During the first year of the pandemic, conservatives clamored to get kids back in school as quickly as possible. On his presidential campaign trail, Joe Biden promised a full return to school in the fall of 2021. They correctly noted (at the time) that transmission between students was rare and that the symptoms were generally mild when they occurred. Those same conservatives point out that though the Delta variant is more infectious and more severe, it’s still highly unlikely to kill many students, though I suspect this is cold comfort to the parents of the kids who died in Mississippi or who are racking up staggering medical bills.
Complicating matters is that vaccines are not yet approved for children under the age of 12. Trials are underway, but knowledgeable sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they have run into problems and that the initial planned rollout of October or November 2021 is in jeopardy. The fact that Pfizer is calling for 3,000 more child participants between the ages of 5 and 11, and talk of a release date of winter 2021 or early 2022 tends to confirm a delay.
As a result, the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend that all faculty, staff, visitors, and students in schools wear masks, which have shown some efficacy in preventing infection in schools during the past year.
Despite a lack of a vaccine, the emergence of the Delta variant, and the recommendations of experts, the Republican Party has embraced a narrative of “death before mask mandates in schools.” At least ten states, all Republican-controlled, have restricted local school boards from implementing mask mandates. Republican legislators have encouraged people not to wear masks or put them on their children. They denounced the CDC for its recommendations. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), a bellwether for the kinds of people we will see at school-board meetings, has essentially told her followers that wearing a mask is giving in to tyranny and fascism.
The message the right-wing is sending is clear: If you love America, freedom, and little baby Jesus, you don’t wear a mask or get the vaccine. That’s for godless, girly-man liberals in California and Massachusetts. As one man in Missouri who nearly died of COVID said, while still struggling to breathe, “I was strongly against getting the vaccine just because we’re a strong conservative family.”
Conversely, in blue states, school boards are putting the recommended indoor mask mandates in place as children go back to 100 percent full-time, in-person school. Predictably, most of the parents railing against the mandate are framing it as a violation of their right to “choose.”
If the Delta variant proves as adept at infecting students this fall as it did campers in Galveston, all of this is setting up the U.S. for a predictable set of events that are likely to spiral out of control. For a change, however, more left-leaning parents are actually going to have a reason to jump into an already-combative situation fraught with extreme controversy.
There’s some scientific basis to believe that Delta infections will be a big problem at schools. Dr. Julie Swann, a health systems engineering professor at North Carolina State University, has built a model of what to expect in schools this fall, and the results are eye-opening. Even with masks, it forecasts that 40 percent of students will become infected with the Delta variant. In schools with no mask mandate, it predicts 70 percent will become infected. Even in Los Angeles County, with masks and weekly COVID testing, it predicts 20 percent will get the Delta variant. These represent a higher-end estimate, given that some children are either vaccinated or have resistance from prior infections.
In red states where vaccination rates are low, especially among the 12-and-up set, and mask mandates are expressly not allowed, Delta is likely to burn a swathe through schools, particularly among teens whose immune systems more closely resemble adults’. Once a COVID outbreak is discovered, the correct thing to do is send the exposed students home to quarantine.
But of course Republican leaders have already indicated that sending kids who are exposed to COVID home to quarantine won’t happen on their watch.
“I think it’s very important we say, unequivocally, ‘No to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions, no to mandates.’ We’ll be holding the line. We will not back down,” said Florida’s Governor DeSantis to a packed and enthusiastic convention hall in Utah.
It’s hard to imagine reasonable parents happily sending their kids right back to school the day after someone in their child’s class is diagnosed with COVID. Even if the individual risk is relatively low, if enough students contract COVID, the odds are someone will end up in the ICU. Humans are bad at risk calculations on a good day, and even worse where their children are concerned. When a parent who isn’t a diehard conservative hears that a kid in their school is in the ICU due to COVID, and now someone in their kid’s class also has it, it’s fair to assume a lot of parents aren’t going to want their kid returning to school if they have a choice.
You can bet conservative parents are going to send their kids to school without masks, and to file dozens of lawsuits to get injunctions against attempts at mandates. Given how politicized and polarized courts have become, some of them will succeed. They’re going to make nuisances of themselves at school-board meetings with their over-the-top theatrics and bizarre hatred of masks. This is going to build a lot of bad blood.
Most white adults have now had ample opportunity to get a vaccine that is both free and instantly available at nearly every chain drugstore (e.g., CVS or Walgreens) in the country. While Black adults are about as likely to be willing to get vaccinated as whites, they are less likely to have been vaccinated due to issues with accessibility and availability in their communities, and working in jobs where they are neither given time off to get vaccinated nor recover from vaccine side effects. In reality, the people refusing to get vaccinated are Trump supporters and Republican men.
When we see adults suffering and dying because they decided to make a political decision to not get vaccinated, we can make the moral judgment that this is simply an extension of the maxim, “play stupid games, win stupid prizes.” With kids who can’t get vaccinated, and particularly our own, it’s another matter altogether.
Many left-leaning parents were willing to roll their eyes at these antics when school was virtual, COVID wasn’t particularly good at infecting kids, and wasn’t all that likely to cause serious illness. It will “get real” in a hurry if the Delta variant turns out to be as infectious as early returns indicate.
In blue states, most parents will be irritated and inconvenienced by waves of COVID sending kids home to quarantine. Many school districts (including ours) have already abandoned the infrastructure needed to return students to virtual classes even temporarily while waiting out a quarantine. If transmissibility is what it looks like, it will be difficult to maintain continuity of learning as schools repeatedly have to quarantine classes at home.
When your child gets very, very sick because conservatives threw a fit over a bit of fabric on people’s faces to prevent a pandemic, it’s going to be even worse. If parents blame the fanatics at school-board meetings for their child’s suffering or medical bills big enough to cause bankruptcy, it becomes impossible to overstate the level of hatred it generates.
Progressives in red states are going to be furious and terrified if we see COVID cutting swathes through our schools while boards are either powerless, or complicit accomplices with Republican leaders. The options for parents in this situation are to leave their children in class and hope for the best, or pull them out and claim they’re being “home schooled.” Either one will leave people fuming at best or caring for a critically ill child at worst—we’re going to find people who are far angrier politically than they were before.
This fall is going to be a clusterfuck shitshow. The clusterfuck is schools either staying open and unmasked through waves of COVID, or frequently sending entire classes of students into quarantine for ten days at a time, with few plans on how to continue instruction. The shitshow will be at school-board meetings, where the religious right, QAnon-embracing, MAGA-hat-wearing, Tucker Carlson–loving pitchfork-and-torch brigade suddenly, and for the first time, finds themselves met by an equally large and angry contingent of people whose families and children were harmed by their fanatical beliefs.
And what comes next is likely to get as ugly as anything we saw on January 6, 2021.
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