The Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) system hasn’t gotten the memo.
Last week, the county doubled down on its policy of requiring students to wear masks nearly every moment in schools despite Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order giving parents the choice to have their children mask in school. FCPS has gone so far as to sue the governor, claiming he does not have the authority to make masking optional in schools.
I suppose it takes a Republican governor for Democrats to magically rediscover the value of local control.
But in this case, the Democrats are digging their own grave.
FCPS held an online town hall on its masking policy on Jan. 24, during which Superintendent Scott Brabrand insisted that mandatory masking was essential to students’ and teachers’ safety. He crowed about the fact that FCPS hadn’t missed a day of school due to the pandemic.
FCPS’s draconian mask mandate carries more than a whiff of burning down the village to save it.
(Though FCPS did cancel an entire week of school in January after a four-inch snowfall on a Monday at the height of the Omicron wave. A remarkable coincidence, no doubt. My own empirical observations suggested that school buses could have gotten kids to school just fine from Tuesday through Friday.)
Superintendent Brabrand was accompanied in the town hall by Fairfax County health bureaucrats and a pediatrician to insist “the science” demonstrates that masking lowers COVID breakout risks. If a parent cited studies showing masks were less effective than the studies on which FCPS and the CDC relied in crafting their mask policy, well, FCPS wasn’t familiar with the parent-cited studies, so it would simply act as if they didn’t exist.
One major real-world study — the schools throughout several major countries in Europe that don’t require students to wear masks and have not had to close for super-spreader events — went unmentioned. That’s right — many countries, including the UK, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, don’t require masks. And many of these are Bernie Sanders’s precious Scandinavian social democracies!
Remarkably, no school administrator or health bureaucrat in the FCPS town hall even so much as mentioned the downside risks of masking children for an entire school day. FCPS is, in effect, implementing a zero-COVID policy, according to which every decision is intended to prevent a COVID breakout.
FCPS’s policy is fighting the last war. Virginians elected Gov. Youngkin in significant measure because of their fury over Virginia school closures. It took Democrats losing the Virginia governor’s race for FCPS and other Northern Virginia school systems (and the teachers unions) to get the message that parents insist schools stay open. Better late than never, I suppose.
But FCPS’s draconian mask mandate carries more than a whiff of burning down the village to save it.
The downside of masking is real and significant. Younger students are at critical developmental stages for speech and the ability to interpret social and emotional cues from facial expressions. Older students are reportedly experiencing higher rates of fear, anxiety, and depression from the incessant COVID fear of which masks are a primary manifestation. And for special needs students, who may have anxiety, learning disabilities, or autism, masking severely impedes their academic and social progress. As an FCPS parent, I see it myself in the masking policy’s effects on my own children.
Yet no one in the FCPS town hall gave any indication that they are aware of these negative effects and taking steps to mitigate or ameliorate them. It’s zero-COVID, and that’s it.
My own son attends an hour-long weekend social skills group, and while I wait for him in the building lobby I must wear a mask. Every time, I end up with a headache as I try to read a book while I’m waiting for him. I feel constrained in my breathing and unable to focus once the headache gets going.
And this is with just one hour of wearing a mask. I cannot imagine myself having to wear a mask for six to eight hours a day, nonstop, and trying to work or learn. I especially cannot imagine young children wearing one all day.
Can’t anyone engage in mature risk-reward assessments and cost-benefit analyses anymore? FCPS’s pediatrician repeatedly talked about how masks made students and teachers safer and COVID outbreaks less likely. But he didn’t quantify how much less likely these risks are. And neither he nor anyone else in the FCPS town hall explained how they balanced COVID risks with the negative effects on students’ ability to learn and socially and emotionally develop while wearing masks all day, every day.
Maybe masking makes students safer. I happen to think the evidence masks provide significant protection is dubious; just last week the Atlantic (!) ran a piece casting doubt on the various studies on which the CDC has based its mask guidance. But you know what else might make students safer? Mandating school buses drive no faster than 20 miles per hour. No one is talking about this, of course. But in writing this suggestion off as extreme and absurd — and indeed not suggesting it at all — we are engaging in an implicit risk-reward analysis.
In the end, Gov. Youngkin’s policy doesn’t prohibit parents who prefer their children mask all day from sending their kinds to school in a mask. But parents who have a different view and weigh the harms of all-day masking differently are permitted to make a different decision.
That FCPS is mandating masks and giving no consideration to the downside consequences of its policy is absurd. That FCPS is spending taxpayer funds to sue Gov. Youngkin to defend its irrational masking policy is criminal.
There are only two things FCPS and the Fairfax County School Board seem interested in enforcing: the mask mandate and the two-minute limit for complaining parents to speak at school board meetings.
Parents like me are watching and rapidly reaching the conclusion that only a dramatic change in the composition of the Fairfax County School Board and like-minded school boards will ensure parents’ concerns are heard and, as we move toward endemic COVID, administrators perform rational, mature, non-fear-based analyses of risks and rewards.
The next Fairfax County School Board election is in 2023. It cannot come soon enough.