As we moved out of the darker days of mandated closures and restricted learning environments in June, I was among the majority of Vermont educators who celebrated a seeming return to normality as we looked ahead to the ’21 - ’22 school year that for us starts with the return of students on Thursday. Over the summer, with 80% of the State vaccinated against Covid-19, our medical professionals told us the risk of exposure was low and so we ditched our masks and went out into the wider world, feeling as if we had conquered the worst challenges of the Covid-19 virus.
A lot has changed just in the past two months. It is well understood that these viruses need host humans to survive, and it is also well understood that viruses mutate, as if they have an innate ability to detect that their own survival is at risk. In June, the Delta-variant of Covid-19 was still largely an overseas phenomenon, but now it is predominant in Vermont and by all appearances it is more dangerous (especially for our children) than the original form that first arrived in Vermont in March 2020.
So, as we headed into the new school year, the medical experts that have advised us throughout the pandemic recommended that all persons in our school buildings wear a facial mask while inside. This is a recommendation that we are following in CCSU, and with few exceptions, it is a recommendation being followed in all schools in Vermont.
I did not expect the charged reactions to this decision that we have seen. Some have seemingly shifted from the practical to the political when it comes to how one views this simple requirement. Here are a few thoughts as I try to put our thinking into context.
• We are caught in the middle of a war of words between medical experts in Vermont and the unfortunately seductive power of unverified information on the Internet and from other media sources. I don’t have the time to refute every wild claim or outdated perspective, and I know I probably can’t change anyone’s mind. I will simply say that we are choosing to listen to the medical experts who are trained to interpret and act upon the ever-increasing data on the evolution of this pandemic on our behalf.
• Our number one responsibility to our families is to ensure that we can keep our schools open. We are not able to offer remote- and hybrid-learning options this school year, and all of our students are coming back to five-day in-person instruction. This is an incredibly good position for our kids and their families to be in, after more than a year of having to adapt their lives to remote and hybrid schedules. For this to be successful, we have to do everything we can to minimize the risk of exposure and transmission of Covid-19 in schools. Masks will play a significant part in this effort.
• We had a mask mandate in Vermont from August 2020-June 2021, and we wore masks in all of our school buildings. The recommendation to mandate masks that the Governor followed in his now-expired Emergency Order is based on the same science that leads the Health Department to recommend the continued wearing of masks. Shifting from a mandate to a recommendation does not change the underlying rationale for wearing masks.
• We have no evidence that our staff and students experienced adverse health effects from wearing masks in school last year. Indeed, I would argue that the fact that we had just one documented case of in-school transmission last school year says the opposite, and this speaks to the value of all the safety measures we followed, including the wearing of masks. The recommendation for this year is “masks indoors, but not outdoors” and this means kids will be wearing a mask less frequently than last year. Additionally, every school in CCSU has expanded their options to allow mask-free activities for kids throughout the day.
• Claims that kids are not harmed by Covid-19 are misleading and based on “old” science. I clearly recall the perspective at the beginning of the calendar year that said the then-current variant of Covid-19 was not highly transmissible to children and did not cause serious health consequences. That is no longer true. If not for confidentiality, I could point you to a number of students who would disagree, based on their personal experience, with anyone who says that contracting Covid-19 is, “no big deal,” for kids. The relevant concerns today are the impact of the Delta-variant, and Delta is more transmissible and results in more serious disease in children than the original Covid-19.
We need to reverse course and move back from the political to the practical. We have been operating our schools for years, long before the advent of Covid-19, by relying on medical advice and listening to parental concerns that are intended to keep kids safe in school. For example, we have students in our schools with tree-nut allergies, and without anyone telling us to do this we have limited, or outright banned, bringing tree nuts into our school buildings. I am not aware of complaints from almond-lovers in our communities – this decision is apparently accepted by the many in consideration of the few, an example of social cohesion that is seriously lacking when it comes to Covid-19 as we head into the new school year.
I absolutely respect the right of families to make decisions for their children when it comes to vaccination, and for their behavior outside the school environment. What we are asking families to understand is that personal freedom can have limits, and those limits start at the school door, when responsibility for collective health is shared. Based on the overall limited feedback we are receiving about the mask requirement, I believe that most of our families want us to continue to act in the name of keeping ALL of our kids safe at school, and keeping our schools open for all of the children.
Mark Tucker is superintendent for Caledonia Central Supervisory Union.