School culture wars turn into mask mandates

WASHINGTON — New Jersey became the latest state to lift school mask mandates on Monday, as Democrats continue to wrestle with how to keep schools open, adhere to scientific advice and appease a base that remains in favor of a cautious approach to the pandemic.

A warning about how the issue of child masking remains baffling came days before, as Georgia gubernatorial candidate and Democratic national star Stacey Abrams visited Glennwood Elementary School in a suburban suburb on Friday. of Atlanta to celebrate Black History Month. Afterwards, she retweeted an image of herself sitting with students on the floor of a classroom and commented that the visit had been “delightful”.

Stacey Abrams stands on the podium with a microphone.

Voting rights activist Stacey Abrams speaks at a 2021 rally in Charlottesville, Va. (Eze Amos/Getty Images)

But the image seemed hypocritical to some, since Abrams was not masked while the students around him were. This violated the mask mandate that DeKalb County, which includes Atlanta and surrounding areas, had reimposed as the Omicron push took hold earlier this winter.

The ensuing controversy was surely politically motivated, with Republicans in Georgia and Washington criticizing Abrams and other Democrats for not heeding the scientific advice they had so easily touted (Abrams eventually deleted the tweet). But it was also proof that raw divisions over schooling remain, even though the source of many of those divisions – distance education – has been resolved in many ways.

Schools are as fully open as they have been for months; according to data analytics firm Burbio, which tracks school closures, last week only 539 schools paused learning (either by switching to remote learning or closing completely) due to infections to coronavirus. By contrast, the second week of January saw 7,462 disruptions, which caused consternation among supporters who had called for a full reopening last fall.

“Disruptions have dropped dramatically this week to levels not seen since October,” Burbio Chairman Dennis Roche wrote in a Sunday evening update.

Just weeks ago, teachers in Chicago were on the verge of a strike and thousands of schools were closed across the country. Largely, those shutdowns were tied to infection rates, not labor disputes, but tensions continued, with some Democrats beginning to fear the issue could hurt their election prospects in November.

Students leaving school.

Chicago-area high school students are leaving school for the day Jan. 31 in one of 146 Illinois school districts named in a lawsuit targeting Illinois Governor JB Pritzker’s mask mandates in the schools. (Stacey Westcott/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Since then, schools have reopened for in-person instruction – across the country, schools have been open more evenly this week than any other time since November. But meanwhile, the acrimony over reopening has simply migrated to the issue of kids wearing masks in school, presenting a new challenge to Democrats for whom education appears as a potential policy weakness.

A few Democratic governors have lifted statewide orders on student masking, with New Jersey becoming the latest to do so. Gov. Phil Murphy called the decision “a big step toward normalcy” in an interview with The New York Times ahead of Monday’s announcement. Connecticut’s Ned Lamont is also moving in this direction. Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania has been there for some time.

Lifting a state mandate does not prevent local school districts from imposing their own rules, but it no longer gives them gubernatorial cover to do so. Some Republican executives have taken the opposite action, making it illegal for districts to impose mask rules on everyone.

According to Burbio, 60.4% of the nation’s 500 largest school districts still require masks, a notable but not massive drop from the 73.8% who required masks in October. At the time, the Delta wave was sweeping through the United States. Some schools hadn’t been open since early 2020, and masking seemed like a relatively small price to pay for not zooming in 2021.

But since then, the calculations have changed dramatically.

Evidence continues to suggest that wearing masks controls the spread of the coronavirus, although some have disputed these findings. Yet there is also growing concern that masks may also impede the development of some children, who fall into an overall category that is least likely to show severe symptoms of COVID-19. Above all, vaccines have become widely available for children, adding another layer of defense against the virus.

    Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, right, and Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson speak outside the White House after a National Governors Association meeting with President Biden. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Also, as Murphy pointed out to The Times, the arrival of warmer weather will make it possible to open the windows.

Some parents and education policy advocates worry that masks may inadvertently become part of schooling, and that if mandates aren’t rescinded now, they may never be. The increase in reviews is simply: If not now, when?

The moment presents a complex political puzzle, in addition to the public health questions that seem to arise with each new day. Democrats have generally favored pandemic restriction measures like mask mandates, but as the pandemic drags on, opposition to requiring masks for children appears to be growing — or at the very least getting stronger.

“An urgent return to normal school, without mandatory masks, is essential for the health and well-being of our children,” insisted several doctors in a recent USA Today editorial.

Republicans relished the juxtaposition of images of unmasked politicians like Abrams with those of children wearing masks in classrooms. While this comparison is inaccurate, it highlights political divisions that the GOP believes are to its inherent advantage.

“Tear off those masks,” thundered a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week, echoing President Ronald Reagan’s famous speech at the Berlin Wall in 1987.

A reminder of how dangerous the issue is for Democrats can be found in Virginia, where former CFO Glenn Younkin won the governorship last year largely by exploiting suburban discontent with learning at home. distance and other educational issues, such as teaching critical race theory. . Across the country, these constituencies, full of moderate voters, will prove crucial to both parties’ prospects in next November’s election.

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin.

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Youngkin lifted his Democratic predecessor’s school mask mandate on his first day in office, sparking a fight with Democratic strongholds in northern Virginia – and with the White House itself. Several school districts are suing the governor for barring them from implementing mandates, even though parents are sharply divided on the issue.

Nowhere were these divisions more apparent than in Loudoun County, Virginia, where anger over masks has combined with a debate over how to teach American history, as well as a sexual assault alleged that the Conservatives have linked to a policy regarding transgender students. Youngkin has taken on these various schooling issues throughout his campaign.

The now famous county school board meets on Tuesday.

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Carol C. Reed