Editorial: How the state can help schools deal with mask edict

  • Schools will be reopening soon, with one caveat: Students and teachers who have not been vaccinated will be asked to wear masks.

    Schools will be reopening soon, with one caveat: Students and teachers who have not been vaccinated will be asked to wear masks. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
Posted7/17/2021 2:00 PM

How did a flimsy piece of pleated blue or purple polypropylene become such a divisive symbol?

To wear or not to wear protective face shields against COVID-19 has provoked arguments, physical fights and specious claims about false mask-wearing dangers.

 

Vaccinations are quieting that storm -- until last week, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put forth guidelines for schoolchildren contemplating the first near-normal semester since fall 2019.

There's much to praise in the CDC guidelines, which safeguard those who are not fully under vaccines' protective umbrella because of age or illness.

The agency acknowledges some mitigation is needed in the face of a still-lurking reservoir of coronavirus while offering some flexibility in the specifics. And the rise of the Delta variant is especially worrisome in its implications for young people.

But we sympathize mightily with the burden those guidelines place on school administrators -- and the burden they place on school board members -- those unpaid champions who have navigated uncharted waters only to be met with personal attacks, pickets and all sorts of vitriol from people who disagree with their decisions about safe schooling.

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In broad strokes, the CDC says those who are vaccinated do not need to wear masks in school -- but they recommend that those who are not vaccinated should mask.

The common sense in that approach breaks down over the details. One big one is that because COVID-19 vaccines aren't required, schools don't know who's had one. Children 11 and under are not yet eligible for vaccination, so the CDC advises elementary school kids to mask. Middle and high schools would be a different story, with a potential chaotic mix of masked and unmasked students and adults with no way to sort out whether students or teachers are following the guidelines.

In the worst case, you could have some students feeling self-conscious or being harassed about their vaccination status while some aren't truthful about whether they've had the shot, potentially endangering others. Keep in mind that even some who are vaccinated remain vulnerable because they are taking certain medications or have certain illnesses, such as cancer. Their safety cannot be set aside.

Illinois officials should help schools by developing a standard way for students to report if they are vaccinated and thus win freedom from masks.

Meanwhile, let all of us give school boards and administrators a break and some civility as they design the rules.

School's coming back, and if the biggest barrier to normalcy is a face mask, that's a win.

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