The annual re-ignition of the school year was already set to be a little surreal emerging from the COVID pandemic tunnel, and now it has become indelibly marked by competing opinions over mask mandates. With all the other problems inhering in public education, it seems odd that this should be the most animating one, but here we are.
For some strange reason, the instituting, or not, of mask mandates in schools has taken on some of the characteristics of the abortion issue — those who care about it, on either side, do so with almost obsessive vigor, without room for flexibility or nuance, and there is no conceivable argument, datum, or bit of evidence that will sway adherents to either side, which does not stop those adherents from trying, sometimes loudly, occasionally violently. Well, I suppose we all have to fight about something.
I don’t have much play in this issue; my only child is entering her second year of college (with straight A’s. Yes, I am proud, thank you.) To the extent I have much of an opinion on the matter my sympathies generally align with those who oppose mandates. There is some evidence that masks offer some limited protection. Just how limited remains up for medical debate, though most experts appear to agree that it is really not that much. And no, I’m not referring to whichever fool it was who suggested use of a hideously expensive cattle de-wormer to treat COVID. No, I’m referring to folks like Jeffrey Flier, former dean of Harvard Medical School, and Elissa Schechter-Perkins, the director of Emergency Medicine Infectious Disease Management at Boston Medical Center, who told New York Magazine that “there are real downsides to masking children for this long, with no known end date, and without any clear upside… I’m not aware of any studies that show conclusively that kids wearing masks in schools has any effect on their own morbidity or mortality or on the hospitalization or death rate in the community around them.” A not-very-well advertised CDC study from May made the same conclusion, which somehow the CDC top brass managed, like everyone else, to miss, as the report came out right before they updated their guidance. And they wonder why some people are beginning to have doubts about their credibility.
On the other hand, there is certainly the argument that SOME protection, however limited, is better than nothing, and that while kids under 12 are the population least susceptible to COVID, they are also the only group not eligible for the vaccine. And if, even as only a band-aid measure, masks are the ticket to re-opening schools for in-person learning, then what the hell, it’s a small price to pay.
Still, there exists a certain absurdity inherent in requiring schoolchildren — who are the least vulnerable to COVID and who aren’t going to wear the bloody things correctly in any case — to wear masks. The absurdity is compounded by the fact that these same kids are going to be in masks ONLY at school — not at parties or other get-togethers — and that, meanwhile, thousands of people are daily packing themselves into (for example) sports stadiums, with fellow travelers who may or may not be vaccinated, without masks. And yet we survive.
It seems a terribly trite distraction. I don’t much care for mask mandates, but that is the least of the troubles gestating in public school classrooms. I am far more concerned with the education itself, or the lack thereof. Across the country public school student’s proficiency scores in reading and mathematics are at best unimproved, often lower, than they were decades ago. This is before we even start talking about what is no longer taught — history, grammar, logic, good literature and the great books; to say nothing of what IS taught — ideological claptrap like “critical race theory” or its derivations, for instance. Private and charter schools continue to dramatically outperform their public counterparts but remain out of reach for most of those who need them the most. I’m more concerned about how a good education is largely a function of geography and good parents, battling a system that we continue to shovel billions into to create graduates who cannot identify which century WWI was fought in.
Here’s an interesting take: an op-ed in Wednesday’s WSJ by Corey DeAngelis of the Cato Institute and the American Federation for Children pointed out that, nationally, those who support mask mandates — predominantly (but not exclusively) Democrats — would happily support an education system where the dollars follow the student, so that parents could choose to send their kids to a school that required masks — or a suit of armor, or helmets, presumably — if the local public system did not.
It’s a novel appeal to school choice and educational improvement, one I admit I hadn’t thought of. But it just goes to show that good ideas are accepting of late converts, however they come about seeing the light.