COLUMNISTS

Masks? No masks? Parents are not OK with the circus routine of back to school as COVID cases rise

Fifth-grade students wearing masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, listen during class, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, during the first day of school at Washington Elementary School in Riviera Beach, Fla.

COVID-19 is surging again, and this time it’s the more dangerous delta variant. Nevertheless, schools are reopening for fall, and without a cohesive national policy for how to keep children safe.

Diagnosis: The parents are not OK.

Parents who worry for their children’s safety are not OK with school districts that refuse to require even the most basic safety measures, such as face masks and safe distancing.

Anti-mask, anti-vax parents are also not OK, but in a different way. They cherish their fake science and extremist politics more than the safety of their own children.

You’ve likely seen some of these parents, as they are getting the public attention they apparently have long craved. They show up red-faced and shouting at public forums. They spew spittle and nonsense about their freedoms. Accounts of harassment and violence by anti-maskers, often committed by people identified as “parents,” are mounting. 

Their circus routine makes the case for mandating face masks. Parents who mock science and public safety during a pandemic are raising the next generation of bullies. Schools that make masks optional are setting up children who do wear them for ridicule, and possibly worse.

Worried, angry about kids in school

I’m sitting here shaking my head as I write this. I can’t believe this is the conversation we’re having right now, as the number of children’s hospitalizations continue to rise.

In school districts across America, people who are supposed to act in the best interest of their students – our “leaders,” they love to be called – are caving to demands of the willfully uninformed and putting children at risk.

“It’s a betrayal,” a close friend said to me this week. “I am out of patience and full of rage.”

Two weeks after a COVID-19 diagnosis, her 10-year-old daughter is still exhausted and frequently breathless. She caught the virus from a health care provider, whom she sees regularly. To this day, that provider refuses to answer my friend’s single question: “Were you vaccinated?”

In her silence, we know the answer.

Connie Schultz:Read more of her columns

Until their daughter qualifies for a vaccine, my friend and her husband will keep her home because her school does not require face masks. “ 'Mask optional' means no masks,” her mother said. “And teachers, who should be modeling for their students, are not wearing them.”

I’m not naming my friends, by the way, to protect them from some of those parents. This is America now.

There are many brave, caring teachers out there who are doing all that they can to protect their students. They know, as my friend’s husband put it, “The easiest hard decision is to protect a child.”

They are not the teachers we’re worried about.

No, “worried” is the wrong word. We are angry.

Teachers who refuse to model best practices for their students during this pandemic are betraying our children, and the public trust. This is not a game of chance. There are known risks in this pandemic, and equally known ways to reduce them. 

COVID facts:Teachers need to tell students the truth about vaccines and masks

On Wednesday afternoon, I posted on my public Facebook page a series of questions for parents: “What are your schools’ Covid practices? What are your concerns? How are your children feeling about the return to school? How are you feeling about it all?”

By the following morning, more than a thousand people had responded. Some of the most heartbreaking comments came from parents quoting their children.

A 16-year-old girl, one of only 20% who are wearing a mask at her school, texted her mother: “I can’t concentrate in class as I’m just thinking about how angry I am at selfish people.” At an age when most of us felt powered by our dreams, children like her are living through hard truths about the world that now awaits them.

A 9-year-old girl: “Mom, for my birthday, I just want a vaccination.” She is an only child, her mother added. “She’s all I got. If anything happens to her, I’ll come undone.”

Another mother wrote, “I feel like I’m being gaslighted into allowing known positive cases to be exposed to my unvaccinated (due to age) child. I feel like this goes against what the virologist have been saying the whole time. I can’t not be a mom to my kid. I worked too hard to be a parent to allow selfish adults to put my kid at risk for their personal selfishness and comfort. I’m beginning to doubt my gut.”

Yvonne Moniz, right, a special needs teacher at Challenger Elementary, along with Oakland Park Elementary third grade teacher Donna Sacco, second from right, and Oriole Elementary fourth grade teacher Yolanda Smith, center, tries to persuade anti-mask protester Heather Tanner that all students need to wear masks to protect the most vulnerable. during a protest outside of a Broward County School Board meeting, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, in in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to discuss a possible mask mandate when school starts next week.

Many parents have described school open houses full of parents not wearing masks, sometimes in violation of school policy. Somehow, these parents find themselves to be exceptional. We are here to disagree.

I’m thinking of the man I saw standing in line at a grocery store near our college campus and less than 2 miles away from the town’s middle school. We had both walked past the sign requiring face masks, but there he was, standing a foot away from the masked cashier, wearing no mask and a ball cap that read, FREEDOM MATTERS.

Sometimes, you need to see so little about a person to know so much about how he feels about the rest of us.

Overreacting can be healthy

In the days and weeks ahead, concerned parents will likely hear how stupid they are for worrying. They are overreacting to want their children to wear masks. They are overstating potential harm when they object to elbow-to-elbow lunches in school cafeterias. They are freaking out when they plead for every teacher and staff member to be vaccinated.

There are two possible outcomes for parents at the end of this pandemic: 

They worried too much.

They failed to see the danger.

When it comes to protecting family, a good parent chooses to look like a fool. Every time.

USA TODAY columnist Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” is a New York Times bestseller. You can reach her at CSchultz@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @ConnieSchultz