August 9, 2021

John Thompson: Struggling With Masking

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John Thompson is a writer and historian who keeps an eye on educational issues in Oklahoma. Here he reports on the struggle for medical experts, educators and parents facing a state’s no mask mandate rule for schools. 

KOCO TV’s “State of Our Schools” started by noting that the Covid pandemic is “raging,” and asking six school superintendents what they are looking forward to. The answers were all upbeat: “seeing people ‘face to face,’” the Homecoming football game, and expanding one-on-one instruction methods devised last year. Soon, it became a discussion about what they were “really excited” about, like “taking instruction to the next level,” building student-teacher relationships, and getting back to the “old normal.” The discussion turned to the need for a focus on the “academic component,” reversing the “summer slide,” “remediation,” and praise for “virtual snow days!”

To their credit, Oklahoma City Public School Superintendent Sean McDaniel shifted the conversation to wellness and mental health, and outreach to families, and the Moore Superintendent Robert Romines, whose district was clobbered by some of the worst tornadoes in history, cited the importance of trauma. Moreover, all six leaders rallied to support teachers who are afraid of the political minority who led the anti-Critical Race Theory campaign.  But when asked if anyone had anything else to say, the only reply was Romines’ thank you to his fellow superintendents.

A couple of days later the OKCPS Deputy Superintendent Jason Brown and a small rural school superintendent, Matt Holder, were on an Oklahoman panel which included two state medical experts.

Brown was the most explicit of the eight district leaders. As the Oklahoman reported:

Oklahoma City schools required masks last year without pushback from students and staff, he said. Now, the district can only encourage mask wearing, though thousands of its students are still not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“As we’ve heard from the health professionals, we know that’s one of the primary ways that we can help prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Brown said. “So, it truly handcuffs us in our ability to make local decisions on what’s best for our kids in our district.”

But the Oklahoman also cited a parent who said, “I feel like I’m sending my kids into the lion’s den.” I wonder how many parents are satisfied with the OKCPS seeming to merely say, Don’t blame us, we’re handcuffed.

And the deputy superintendent’s statement was the high point of any public pushback against state leaders putting students at risk. Other than that careful statement (or understatement) which merely characterized masking as “one of the primary ways that we can help prevent the spread of COVID-19,”  Brown mostly joined his colleagues, emphasizing the sunny sides. He mentioned an excellent approach to academic recovery the district is taking, providing 3rd and 4th graders with student learning assistants. He acknowledged that only 60+% of staff are vaccinated, and that that earlier vaccination efforts at schools produced disappointing results. Moreover, he admitted that groups of infected students, or even an entire school, might be required to return to online learning, while expressing “hope” that “we don’t need it even for a short time.”

When asked by a parent how she could make sure that her seven-year old would keep a mask on when others don’t, the administrators ducked the issue. Since they are legally forbidden to mandate masks or vaccines, it was explained, schools must focus on things like making masks and hand sanitizer available. Worry was expressed that attitudes have changed and it will be harder to persuade people to wear masks. Sulphur Superintendent Holder, who I have long respected, seemed to acknowledge that the mitigation tactics they must now focus on will be less effective. But, he said, “Those are the things that we can control, and that’s what we’re going to really focus on.”

By contrast, Dr. Donna Tyungu, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with OU Health Science Center, responded, “If it was my child in school, and no one else was wearing a mask, he would have it on.”  And that illustrated the way that the medical experts I’ve seen in Oklahoma take an approach to communication which is 180 degrees the opposite of school leaders.

Dr. Tyungu didn’t duck the mask or vaccine issues, or the severity of the new threats. She explained, “I don’t even really like calling it COVID-19 anymore, I call it COVID-21, because we’re talking about a completely different virus now.” Similarly, Dr. Mary Clarke, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said that the new virus has produced an “astronomical” increase in hospitalization. They both explained the increased transmission rates and the potentially much more serious effects on young people, in comparison to last year’s infections. They explained how hospitals are overflowing, and being filled with young people, often with other unexpected inflammatory conditions.

Both doctors concluded with the words: “Please!, please!,” get vaccinated. Please, wear masks!

Conversely, School Superintendent Holder’s final thought was that he hoped, “everyone uses grace and kindness.”

Then, Deputy Superintendent Brown called for “greater encouragement” for behaviors that result in “better likelihood to stay in school.” That might be a little better answer, and certainly it was better than the non-responses of the six superintendents on KOCO, but it added little clarity as to whether the district would prioritize persuasion regarding vaccinations and masks. It’s great that the OKCPS has started to reach out to the families of students who have fallen behind academically, but why has it not prioritized teamwork with “trusted influencers” to persuade families to get vaccinated and wear masks?

The next day, a Journal Record panel of three medical experts exemplified the opposite of the timidity of the eight administrators in calling for vaccinations and masks. Dale Bratzler, D.O., OU chief COVID officer, explained that the Delta variant had produced a twenty-fold increase infections and a ten-fold increase in hospitalizations in Oklahoma. When explaining the science regarding the dangerous situation that is rapidly unfolding, Dr. Gitanjali Pai, chief medical officer at the Oklahoma State Department of Health, stopped to “put a plug in” for getting vaccinated. She said that we must meet the unvaccinated where they are, and draw on “trusted messengers” to increase vaccinations and mask-wearing.

Dr. Bratzler had just left a meeting with college students where he “strongly recommended” masks, and said “Number 1, Number 1!,” get vaccinated. He then described the dangerous levels of burnout by medical staff, and said bluntly that we no longer have the personnel required to handle a surge like last winter’s.

Dr. Gary Rascob, chairman of the Oklahoma City-County Board of Health and dean of the Hudson College of Public Health at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, acknowledged we should admit mistakes, such as the CDC’s premature statement which allowed the public to relax too soon. He added, “Right now, whether you are vaccinated or not” wearing a mask indoors is “as important as getting vaccinated.” He also called on policy makers to “back off,” and reverse their ban on masks.

In the starkest contrast with school leaders, the doctors didn’t duck the question as to the message legislators should hear.  Dr. Rascob urgently called for a reversal of the prohibition against mask mandates. Dr. Pai called for empathy, while expressing the truth to the unvaccinated. And Dr. Bratzler concluded that in his 40 year career, he has never seen anything as dangerous as this pandemic. The issue isn’t individual rights or politics. The issue is the dangerous surge we are experiencing.

At this point, I must make two additional points. Ordinarily, if benchmark testing produced equally disappointing results, a school system’s response would be a clear call for an all-hands-on-deck response. Why didn’t this threat to students’ safety produce the same type of open and urgent campaign? Similarly, and this is not an attempt to minimize the tragedies caused by deadly tornadoes, but how would a superintendent in tornado alley respond to the outlawing of tornado watches, warnings, and drills? Just because it isn’t as visible of a threat as a funnel cloud, why can’t we prioritize today’s threat to students’ and other peoples’ lives – a threat that dwarfs the damage produced by storms?

Second, I’ve long believed that education leaders should learn from the messaging of medical experts, who are not as constrained by generations of powerlessness in the face of attacks on public education. But we now face an extreme danger, made worse by rightwing ideologues intimidating educators, and education leaders finding it much harder to speak truth to power.  I know half of the administrators I’ve cited, and I know they care deeply about students’ health and safety. It’s great they gathered the courage to resist anti-CRT extremists, defend teachers, emphasize the role of trauma, and retain their good humor. Ordinarily, these responses would be worthy of praise.

But their relative silence on new constraints for protecting public health is disturbing. Right now, they should make their students’ health the #1 priority.

As the medical experts say, we can’t shame people into embracing science.  But, these three panel discussions illustrate the contrast between the openness and courage of public health leaders, as opposed to the caution of school leaders who are reluctant to resist laws and policies that make it impossible to appropriately protect kids and their families.  (I expect the same dynamic explains higher education leaders’ silence, and if history repeats itself, their institutions are likely to become even worse spreaders.) Sadly, as schools and universities open, an avoidable tragedy seems likely. Even if it has been impossible for district leaders to challenge the legislature’s and the governor’s recklessness, if the Delta virus is as destructive as it has been elsewhere, superintendents must start to stand firm for our children and families.

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