The Dangerous Rejection of School Mask Mandates

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love — Isaac — and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain that I will show you.”
— Genesis 22:1-2

Abraham, according to the Bible, was willing to do as God commanded, but at the last minute, Isaac won a divine reprieve. That option is not likely to save the many American children who are being offered up by parents and elected officials determined to defy science and public health experts.

Those under age 12 are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that, to prevent transmission of this disease, schools require face coverings for everyone attending in-person classes. But that guidance has provoked widespread resistance.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has banned school mask mandates and briefly threatened to withhold the salaries of school superintendents and school board members who impose them. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order says “no student, teacher, parent, or other staff member or visitor can be required to wear a mask while on campus.” Arizona, South Carolina, Utah, Iowa and Oklahoma have followed suit.

If these state officials have their way, millions of children will return to classrooms without the protection of universal masking — just as COVID-19 is mounting a comeback. The surge is particularly pronounced among children. And it is proving more dangerous than previous forms of the disease.

At Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, reported NBC News, the number of patients has more than tripled. Contributing to the crisis is the spread of a flulike illness, known as respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, that usually peaks in winter and disproportionately affects kids.

Heather Haq, a pediatrician there, wrote on her blog, “I worry that we will run out of beds and staff to handle the surge upon surge.”

Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock said it had 10 kids in the intensive care unit and five on ventilators. At Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, the number of admissions in July was quadruple that of June.

The importance of getting children back into schools is not in dispute. Fortunately, studies indicate that transmission in classrooms is low as long as masks are required.

But many parents and some politicians reject this simple safeguard. Abbott insists that “Texans, not government, should decide their best health practices,” which is like saying that motorists should be allowed to drive as fast as they want in school zones. Never mind that Texas already requires more than a dozen vaccines for school enrollment.

Mask opponents claim that COVID-19 presents little risk to children and that they rarely transmit it. But Mercedes Carnethon, a professor of epidemiology and pulmonary and critical care at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told me, “I’ve seen no evidence that children have a difference in susceptibility in transmitting or contracting the virus as compared with adults.”

The jump in pediatric hospitalizations shows that the virus doesn’t spare the young. In the 23 states (and New York City) that report hospitalizations, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports, more than 17,000 kids have been hospitalized. Nationally, at least 371 kids have died — all this despite last year’s shift to remote instruction. Combine delta, RSV and unmasked in-person learning, and those numbers are likely to mushroom.

Face coverings are plainly helpful. A review of research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded, “The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask wearing reduces transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected respiratory particles in both laboratory and clinical contexts.”

The evolution of COVID-19 only enhances the value of masks.

No one likes wearing them, but mandatory face coverings are a trivial nuisance when compared with the perils of fueling the spread of COVID-19. Those include the emergence of new variants that are more deadly and resistant to existing vaccines.

But let’s not forget the immediate danger to the kids who are spared a mask mandate. Some will be infected; some will be hospitalized; some will be intubated; some will suffer long-term health damage; and some will die.

Abraham proved his devotion to God by agreeing to do something supremely horrifying. What do the opponents of school masks hope to prove with their burnt offering?

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Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. His twice-a-week column on national and international affairs, distributed by Creators Syndicate, appears in some 50 papers across the country.