Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
Like millions of other parents across the country, we are faced with an impossible choice right now - whether or not to send our children to school this fall in the face of a pandemic that does not seem to be slowing any time soon.
It is supposed to be a happy, milestone year for my kids, as my youngest daughter enters kindergarten, our son goes into the third grade and our oldest daughter will officially start middle school. But like a lot of things in 2020, nothing is normal, and my kids have learned to accept that we have to stay safe. That has meant canceled soccer seasons and no baseball games. It has meant a “virtual” ballet recital and scrapping plans for birthday parties for all three kids. It has meant having COVID-19 tests done on the entire family before spending time with the in-laws and visiting with my 88-year-old grandmother, holding posters and all, through the closed window of her assisted living facility.
This year has been anything but normal.
And so the idea of even a hint of normalcy with the reopening of schools is a welcome thought. My youngest has been counting down the start of kindergarten for months as she can’t wait to ride a school bus or take a lunchbox to school like her older siblings do.
And yet, we have to explain to her that things won’t be normal, at least, not yet.
I applaud Alabama and many other states for giving parents the right to choose whether to send students back to school or instead choose an online, virtual plan instead. Choice is good, because what works for one family will more than likely not work for all. While some parents relish homeschooling and prefer it, there are others, like myself, that felt that homeschooling is not conducive to also working a full time job. For households where both parents work outside the home, for those who have no relatives close by and especially for single parents, the “choice” isn’t much of a choice at all.
And so when those carpool drop off lanes hopefully reopen next month, I plan to be there with my three kids, excited, cellphone camera clicking, trying to ward off the tears from my last baby’s first day of kindergarten. I fully support the reopening of schools across the country - as long as it can be done safely.
Which, I wrongly assumed, meant face masks would be required. After all, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wearing masks while social distancing is the best way possible to slow the spread of COVID-19. If we have any hope of slowing the spread and saving lives, masks have to be part of the plan.
However, I was surprised this week when a reopening plan draft for the Tuscaloosa City Schools was unveiled. According to one part of the proposed plan, which is to be voted on July 21, masks could only be required for students aged 9 and older. I support teachers and students wearing masks. But even the youngest students should be included.
At a time when COVID-19 cases are surging and more than 138,000 Americans have died of the virus this year - more than 1,200 of them in Alabama, as of last week - do we really want to leave anything to chance? Recently, three teachers in Arizona shared a classroom for a summer school class. All ended up testing positive. One of them, 61-year-old first-grade teacher Kimberly Chavez Lopez Byrd, died from the illness.
We can’t risk teachers’ lives by allowing students to go unmasked. Children too, must be protected at all costs. And making masks mandatory must be part of the equation.
Otherwise, if everyone isn’t masked, you might as well not open school at all, because ultimately, everyone is exposed. Surgical style or cloth masks only work if everyone is wearing them. Sure, it won’t be easy to keep masks on young children like my soon to be kindergartner. But that’s where parents come into play, teaching them how to wear them and why we must wear them. If kids can learn to keep their shoes on and to put their backpacks up, they’ll learn to keep the masks on, too.
We must give our kids more credit when it comes to their ability to wear masks. But we also must demand more protection out of our school systems at this time.
Make masks mandatory in school - for all of our sakes.
Lydia Seabol Avant writes The Mom Stop for The Tuscaloosa News in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.