Why liberal suburbs are facing a new round of school mask battles

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David Fleishman, the superintendent of schools in Newton, Mass., an affluent suburb of Boston, said he recently received a message from a parent who was pushing for an end to mask mandates in classrooms.

But first, he said, the individual felt the need to assure him, “I’m not a Trump supporter.”

While Newton, like much of Massachusetts, is mostly liberal and Democratic, Fleishman said when it comes to masks, “there’s this tension.”

The battle over mask mandates may shift to liberal-leaning communities that largely agreed on the need for masking — and bound by statewide mask requirements.

Now that Massachusetts will lift its school mask mandate on February 28, joining other liberal states like New Jersey and Connecticut, it will be up to individual school districts like Newton and nearby Boston to decide if and how quickly they want to. cancel their own mask rules.

But a well-organized chorus of public health and child development experts, alongside activist parents, say masking can hurt children academically and socially, and calls for a return to some semblance of normality.

Newton and Boston, with downtowns roughly 10 miles apart, provide insight into how two politically liberal and cautious districts approach choice — and how and why they might make different decisions. The debate will involve science, but also politics, race and class, and a flurry of emotions.

Some see masking as a powerful health tool and a symbol of progressive values. Others have come to see face coverings as an unfortunate social barrier between their children and the world. And many people are somewhere in between.

In Newton, 65% of elementary students, 79% of middle school students and 88% of high school students are vaccinated, according to the district. The neighborhood is 61% white and 14% of students are entitled to a free or reduced price lunch.

Some prominent community leaders say they are ready to ease the restrictions.

In Boston, where vaccination rates are A little lowerin a significative way for black and Latino children, who make up most of the district — the public school district says it has no plans to end its mask mandate.

Neither are some charter schools in the city.

David Steefel-Moore, chief operating officer of the MATCH charter school network, said he hasn’t heard “any negative feedback” about the masking from parents, who are predominantly black and Latino. “We have the other side of that: ‘My child told me there was a child in his class with the mask around his neck. What are you doing about it? »

For Boston students who may be living with a grandparent or family member with underlying health conditions, ending mandatory masking could put children and teens in the awkward position of having to choose between their family’s sense of safety and how they fit in at school, said Gayl Crump Swaby, a Boston Public Schools parent and counseling professor who specializes in trauma issues for families of color.

“They shouldn’t have to make those kinds of decisions; they are young,” she said.

Some parents might even prefer online instruction to classrooms with unmasked peers and teachers, she added.

In Newton, one of the most important voices in the masking debate is Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health and parent of students in the district. He sits on the district medical advisory group and has become a strong advocate for exposing children as Omicron backs down.

The group will meet this month to make a recommendation on masking for the elected school committee, which will make the final decision.

Dr Jha does not believe his own children have been seriously harmed by the masking and does not believe the pandemic is over.

But he wants to unmask soon, he says, in part to provide some social and academic normalcy, given that he thinks future US coronavirus outbreaks will likely require masking again – potentially in the South in the South. over the summer and in the North this fall and next winter.

He argued that with new therapies to treat Covid-19, there is little benefit this spring to masking in areas, like the Boston area, with relatively high vaccination rates and plummeting infections. .

“If not now when?” He asked. “Because I don’t foresee a time in the next two years that will necessarily be much better.”

Teachers and vulnerable students, he said, could stay safe by wearing high-quality masks even when those around them are not covered. Throughout the pandemic, he pointed out, the transmission of the virus inside schools was limitedincluding in some places where masks were not required.

Dr. Jha’s advice, however, does not necessarily reassure educators who have seen guidelines change frequently over the past two years.

In many areas on the left, virus safety plans have been painstakingly negotiated between teachers’ unions and districts, and they can be complex to undo.

“Knowledge of the virus changes, variants change, facts change, which is really frustrating,” said Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union.

Teachers’ unions have been among the strongest supporters of masking, pushing in recent weeks for their members and students to have access to medical-grade masks and respirators, such as N95s, KN95s, KF94s and surgical masks. But individual teachers disagree about the importance of masks and how they affect students.

In Newton, Suzanne Szwarcewicz, an elementary school English teacher, said the masks presented challenges for young children who were native speakers of languages ​​like Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hebrew. and Spanish.

Last school year, Ms Szwarcewicz experimented with teaching English in a mask with a clear plastic front so students could see the shapes her lips and tongue made as she spoke. But she gave up on that when those masks quickly became damp and uncomfortable. She now uses videos to demonstrate correct pronunciation and sometimes briefly lowers her own mask while standing several feet away from students.

Ms Szwarcewicz said she would be comfortable with students removing their masks and would feel safe knowing her own mask provided protection. Still, she would happily march in support of her colleagues if her union voted to protest any relaxation of masking rules, she said.

Newton Teachers Association president Mike Zilles said there could indeed be resistance if the school committee chooses to make masking voluntary. The state and district recently relaxed school virus testing, contact tracing and quarantine procedures, leaving masks as an important remaining defense, he argued.

Feelings of pandemic burnout are common among teachers.

“We were thrown in there, asked to risk our lives, and no one really acknowledged it,” Mr Zilles said. “We were the guinea pig.”

Dr Jha acknowledged that university studies were unlikely to sway those who feared unmasked students, but said he expected consensus to grow over time as students from neighboring districts get rid of their face without epidemic.

“People have to get to a point emotionally and mentally where they’re comfortable with it,” he said. “If the children are all masked for the next two years, that’s a problem. I’m going to push back pretty hard. But if they are masked next month or the next two months, that’s fine.

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