I loved school growing up, so it’s no surprise that I’m usually giddy for my kids to go back to school. I love getting them ready for their new adventure: the new clothes, new backpacks, fresh haircuts — and, if I am being totally honest, a schedule!
Fortunately, my kids usually feel the same way. But this year I can’t enjoy any of it because I am genuinely terrified to send my too-young-to-be-vaccinated children to school here in Texas. Why? Because politics are trumping public health and safety, and our children are going into a proverbial battlefield without proper armor.
In spite of the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommend that everyone (vaccinated or not) in schools mask up right now due to the highly contagious delta variant, Texas is one of the many Republican-controlled states that has forbidden mask mandates in schools.
Our governor’s latest executive order bans schools from requiring the very same masks that helped keep our kids safe and Covid-free throughout the 2020-2021 school year, during which we were fortunate to have in-person school. While we had Covid precautions in place, our school did a great job at making the abnormal feel normal — and my kids honestly thrived.
Yes, there were some Covid cases over the winter. But my biggest fears — mass outbreaks and a return to virtual school — never came to fruition. In fact, their school never had to shut down, due to the extraordinary measures they took to keep our babies safe. These measures included masking, social distancing, sanitizing stations, desk shields, fresh air breaks, contact tracing and mandatory quarantining after exposure. I was proud of our school district for how well they handled things. We were modeling what successful pandemic schooling could look like.
But now the governor’s executive orders have tied our school district’s hands at a most critical time, and all those safety precautions and protocols are being thrown out the window this coming school year — which, in my district, starts August 11. Masks? They’re now optional for students and staff, vaccinated or not. Desk shields? Optional. Online Covid case tracker? Gone. Quarantining after exposure? Optional. (I know, that one is truly insane — don’t even get me started). And, here’s the kicker: In my district, there is zero funding for a virtual school option. So it’s either you risk your children’s safety and send them to school in person … or you find a Plan B at the 11th hour.
As a parent of children who are too young to be vaccinated, I have never felt so helpless. I’ve written countless times to the school board and the Texas Education Agency and have gotten nowhere — their hands are tied by the governor’s executive order. It’s almost like he thinks we are not in the middle of a global pandemic (newsflash: we very much are), or that Covid doesn’t affect kids (newsflash: it very much does).
Sadly, it’s not just Texas that’s unwilling to do anything to protect its youngest citizens. Florida, South Carolina, Iowa, Arizona and Oklahoma are among the Republican-controlled states refusing to allow schools to require masks. I am afraid this will bear tragic consequences.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson seems to agree — he admitted this week that he regrets banning his state’s mask mandate as delta rages in his state. “Our cases were at a low point,” he said of his decision. “Everything has changed now, and yes, in hindsight, I wish that had not become law.” The governor has called the state legislature back for a special session in order to change this law, saying: “The local school districts should make the call and they should have more options to make sure that their school is a safe environment during a very challenging time for education.”
But keeping kids safe isn’t going to be easy. South Florida’s Broward County was prepared to buck their governor’s mask rule and require everyone to wear them anyway, until Gov. DeSantis threatened to withhold funding to school districts. Regrettably, the district caved on their position just yesterday. It’s truly a shanda, a shame.
Public pressure campaigns from parents, teachers’ groups, the media and more have not worked to change these governors’ minds. This week, even President Biden called out these GOP governors. “We need leadership from everyone. Some governors aren’t willing to do the right things to make this happen. I say to these governors, please, if you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way for people who are doing the right thing.”
It comes as little surprise that Texas and Florida accounted for 1 out of 3 Covid-19 cases in the entire country last week. The delusional thinking that these governors are peddling — that people in these states will take “personal responsibility” and mask up/get vaccinated — is laughable. A large group of Americans still don’t believe this pandemic is real, let alone that the delta variant is as contagious and deadly as it is. And try as we might, we can’t seem to get through to them. Until it’s their loved one expressing regret as they’re about to be intubated in an ICU bed … it isn’t real.
As such, it’s highly unlikely that many parents in Texas, Florida and other red states will send their children to school wearing masks. This puts the burden back on us — the vaxxed and masked crowd, who have been dutifully following the science as it evolves — to be the ones to send our otherwise unprotected kids back to school in masks. We will do this because there won’t be any other protection measures in place for our children.
Can you hear me screaming through your screen?!
But here’s the thing. As angry as I am that we aren’t past this pandemic, as devastated as I am that public health has become politicized, as livid as I am at my governor for this reckless decision and as worried as I am that my kids could be among the very few wearing masks… I know sending them to school masked is the safest decision we can make for them.
What’s more, I want my kids to know that masking up isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s also the Jewish thing to do. By masking up, they’re living out two important Jewish values: pikuach nefesh (saving a life) and tikkun olam (healing the world). These are the very same Jewish values that inspired my husband and me to participate in a Covid-19 clinical trial, and our kids will get to live those values out again when it’s their turn to get vaccinated (hopefully this fall). Even amid this terrible pandemic, there are still teachable moments, and I don’t take them for granted.
While I may not have any authority to change my governor’s executive order, I can continue to advocate for masks and vaccination. And, in turn, our kids will learn what it means to do our part to care for others in our community — regardless of if they’re extending us the same compassion. Like all kids, they’ve had to make so many sacrifices already throughout this pandemic, and I have been beyond impressed with their resilience. This new school year and all its challenges is just another character-building moment for them.
My anxiety may still be through the roof when they go back to school next week. But in my heart, I know my family is doing all we can to keep ourselves and our community safe. And the more of us that rise to the occasion by masking and getting vaccinated, the quicker we will end this thing.