The pressure to create “off-ramps” for the pandemic has led a flurry of states to lift mandatory universal masking and turfed the decision to individual school districts. As a public school employee of more than 21 years, I can assure you that there are no hidden epidemiologists on staff helping to make decisions for a pandemic that has killed more than 900,000 people. Very few school districts have school nurses in leadership positions and if there are school health supervisors, they don’t typically sit at the decision-making tables where public health considerations are debated. Remember, we care for other people’s children, so one would imagine it would be important to consult public health experts before dismantling the exact mitigation strategies that have allowed schools to remain open this year.
What was never part of the calculation in the pandemic response was the human factor, which has proven to be more powerful than data and research. Who would have predicted that communities would fight protections for themselves and their children? Who would have imagined that masks would be equated with child abuse? When I reflect on these last two years, I have to admit that my faith in humanity has been shaken to the core.
This past week, in my own state of New Jersey, our Governor, announced lifting mandatory mask mandates in schools and transferring the policy decisions to school districts. Since Monday, when the annoucement was first scooped by The New York Times N.J. Governor to End School Mask Mandate in Move to ‘Normalcy’ ahead of the official annoucement via a press conference that afternoon, a flurry of states have followed suit. In addition, within New Jersey, school districts have announced their intention on not only lifting the mask mandate for students and staff but other mitigation strategies like contact tracing and quarantining. The only problem is that the New Jersey Department of Health has yet to release its updated guidance.
School districts have a duty to provide safe school environments, even in the midst of a pandemic that the public would like to pretend is over. This notice from the Pennsauken School District is an example of how school districts are jumping the gun on this race to end the pandemic, and I fear it will not end well: