One of the worst features of the pandemic has been the negative effect this ordeal is having on children. Obviously, the exceedingly rare cases of childhood fatality secondary to COVID have been nothing short of tragic. The measures that have been implemented in various settings to supposedly keep kids safe from infection have also been incredibly disruptive to their wellbeing. In many parts of the country, school systems have been the worst offenders. The COVID-related school drama never ends, though many parents (and indeed many educators) are completely fed up with it all. Protests against masking are breaking out across Illinois. In New York, the indoor mask mandate was overturned by a lower court, but an appellate panel of judges reinstated it temporarily while the state appeals that lower-court decision. Truly, the back and forth over covid policy has been exhausting for students in districts across the country. Thankfully, tools are emerging to advocate for a return to normalcy — more on that later.
Hasn’t a school’s purpose has always been to educate children and encourage healthy development? Educators have been leaders in that way. They have shaped the future. It’s the most important profession in all reality. It’s amazing how quickly a world can turn itself upside down, isn’t it? The stress and disruption from unrelenting, forceful mitigation COVID policy has dimmed the light in many kids’ eyes. Remote learning and other classroom disruptions aimed at controlling COVID have caused children (particularly those from lower socioeconomic statuses) to fall behind drastically in reading and math across the country. Some apparently say, “So what? Safety must come first!” Even when they were allowed to return to in-person instruction, the disrupted environment assuredly is contributing to the increased rates of depression and anxiety in children and adolescents. “Alas, it can’t be avoided,” some say. “Safety first!” This has been frustrating to millions of parents, and no doubt frustrating to thousands of educators who are caught in the middle.
It’s even more urgent now, given the overall decreased virulence of Omicron, that we let kids be normal again.
Why are we allowing this to happen to our children? Since day one, the knee-jerk reaction of some parents and many health care professionals has been, “These interventions aren’t ideal, but they are necessary to slow the spread and save lives!” You can imagine the germaphobe, triple-masked mom at the PTA meeting stamping her foot a bit while she informs lesser mortals of this perceived certainty. Truly, proponents of draconian COVID mitigation efforts in schools have been the most flamboyant self-fulfilling prophets I have ever seen. They exude the type of circular reasoning that is so certain of itself and so dismissive of debate that even René Descartes would advise them to tone it down a bit. Those with arrogant certainty sometimes have a hard time adapting to reality as it changes around them.
The first waves of COVID posed a much more serious risk to any individual, child or adult, than Omicron. We’re in a much better spot now. How I wish this objective fact would imprint itself into the minds of policymakers across the country. Some have argued from day one that the universal masking, the social distancing, the interruption of extracurricular activities, etc., were largely unnecessary for schools, as the risk of a healthy child having a bad outcome from prior COVID variants basically approached zero. Now, with Omicron, and particularly in heavily vaccinated populations, the risk of serious harm is even less than it was before. In other words, the risk of death in an otherwise healthy child is now infinitely close to zero with Omicron. (READ MORE from Reed Spaulding IV, M.D.: Omicron: Haven’t We Been Here Before?)
That’s great; so why does my 9-year-old son still have to wear a mask at school? Most of you reading this who have children are likely shaking your heads in agreement, as your kids are still experiencing this nonsense too. Some of you may be frustrated educators or school administrators who feel caught in the middle of the masquerade ball. As more and more people leave COVID hysteria-land and join rationality, we should all start to peacefully and politely demand that kids get to experience normal school days again. But how? How can we best advocate for the return to a normal school day? It’s even more urgent now, given the overall decreased virulence of Omicron, that we let kids be normal again.
Twitter is often a flaming pile of garbage, but it did me a favor yesterday when the algorithm shoved #urgencyofnormal into my news feed. I was delighted once I further investigated this topic: I found a document that frustrated parents and educators can use to feel empowered against overbearing COVIDians. At Urgencyofnormal.com, you can find a toolkit written by a group of physicians who are also parents. They come from various disciplines, including infectious disease, pediatrics, and psychiatry, among others. Many of them are employed by esteemed academic institutions, including Harvard, Case Western, University of Virginia, and UCSF. Suffice it to say, these are esteemed and respected professionals. This thoughtful group has put together a wonderful document, one aimed at arming you with the knowledge and confidence you need to advocate for a return to normalcy in the school system. It’s impossible for an op-ed to do it justice. You need to click the link, download the PDF, and read it for yourself.
I’ll try to hit some of the highlights:
Not surprisingly, the overarching themes are rooted in common sense. You have known since day one that forcibly masking children at school has had minimal impact on the course of this pandemic, but you can’t just go shout that at the school board, can you? That won’t help anything. They will say, “We trust the science.” You must be literate and confident enough to embrace this type of discussion and explain to them that the science also includes academic papers that support your contention that masking has done little to help kids and much to harm them. Despite his repeated claims, disagreeing with Dr. Fauci (and those supportive of his terrible advice over the past two years) isn’t an attack on science. And now, after studying the toolkit that these authors have freely provided, you have a list of academic publications that demolish this nonsensical idea of forced masking.
The reality is that there has yet to be published a well-controlled study that demonstrates clear benefit of masking students. It doesn’t exist, and yet that is the standard that a sweeping intervention of this nature would typically require. You need well-controlled data that shows a clear, definite benefit in order to impose a mandate of this nature on millions of children, and yet the CDC lovingly flipped all our kids the bird and said, “Eh, we figure it probably helps. Mask up!” It’s maddening. Regarding student masking, the authors conclude, “When an intervention’s real-world benefits are too small to measure, we should feel comfortable ending its use.” I couldn’t agree more.
It’s certainly not just masks that are addressed in the toolkit, even though that’s the biggest topic of contention today. Unfortunately, faced with Omicron, many school districts across the country have opted to close again. Let me be unequivocally clear: Schools should never, under any circumstances, be closed in a futile attempt to control Omicron spread. The toolkit provides a list of papers documenting just how harmful closing schools can be, not just in terms of learning loss but also mental health, increased obesity, and reduction in physical activity, among others. Again, a lot of this is just common sense, but it’s important to be armed with data to back up your common-sense opinion. The onus is on you to be informed and prepared when discussing these matters.
This collaboration has the potential to generate a watershed moment, much like the Great Barrington Declaration did back in the fall of 2020. In similar fashion, this document argues that imposing wide-scale disruptive policies on an entire population (specifically kids at school) causes more harm than good. A better approach would be focused protection, where you protect vulnerable individuals within the population without imposing rules on everyone. This common-sense approach should be what we all strive to accomplish, particularly as Omicron begins to wind down.
Whether you’re a parent, an extended family member, an educator, an administrator, or an otherwise concerned citizen, if you live in an area where children are still being harmed by overbearing COVID school policies, read the document and digest it. Afterwards, you should email, or call, snail mail, or even set up a face-to-face meeting with your local school board officials and implore them to end this nonsense. It is easy to document the numerous ways that these policies are harming our children. This toolkit has done the legwork for you.
I certainly don’t control reality. I just write about it from time to time. The reality of today is that it is well past time to retire ineffective COVID mitigation strategies in our school systems. It’s time for you to be the advocate. It’s time for you to join the growing number of voices, inside and outside of medicine, that are demanding for children to experience normalcy again. It truly is a matter of urgency. You must be respectful, informed, and confident in order to successfully fight for them. It’s up to you to be their light.